Visiting the Gilded Lilies Across the United States

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Are you itching to break out of your bubble and plan a vacation? William Shakespeare noted in King John, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily…To smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or…seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” Are you curious about the Bard’s description?

The United States Gilded Age saw the construction of some of the world’s most opulent houses. The Gilded Age was from the late 1800s to the 1920s. Ostentation was rampant as the millionaires from the discovery of oil, silver and gold, from the steel and railroad industries, and from the rise of Wall Street and the banking industry looked for ways to spend their money and to show off their wealth to others. Their luxurious homes in New York City set the tone and soon even the established wealthy families began creating summer homes and cottages on Long Island and Newport, Rhode Island. This gilded age of architecture is not so much a style or type of architecture as it is a description of a style of excess.

The Breakers Mansion is the largest and most elaborate of the cottages in Newport. Cornelius Vanderbilt II had this “cottage” constructed between 1892 and 1895 by architect Richard Morris Hunt. The cottage has 65,000 sq. ft. and cost around $7 million, or $212 million at 2018 prices. Each of the four façades is beautifully constructed and makes it hard to decide which one is the main entrance of the house. European design and influence are present in almost all of the houses of the Gilded Age, but the Breakers’ extraordinary attention to detail carries this influence to a new level. The dining room of the Breakers is gilded and contrasts beautifully with the cardinal red draperies on the huge windows. Both the main entrance hall and the butler’s pantry are two to two and a half stories high. The outside children’s playhouse houses a working fireplace.

Rosecliff Mansion was commissioned for Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs and constructed in Newport between 1898 and 1902 at a cost of $2.5 million, or $75,000,000 in 2018 prices. The cottage has a U-shaped design dramatizing the entrance with beautiful formal gardens and fountain. The rose gardens are spectacular and the source of the mansion’s name. The fabulous interiors have been used in many movie settings. Especially gorgeous is the heart-shaped grand staircase leading to the second floor. The huge courtyards and beautiful ballrooms make the mansion a favorite for wedding parties.

Marble House is another over-the-top mansion in Newport. Alva Vanderbilt was the first to construct her cottage in Newport and she set the tone. Marble House cost $11 million, about $308 million in 2018 dollars, $7 million of which went into 500,000 cubic feet of white marble. The cottage consisted of 50 rooms and employed 36 servants during the six-week summer vacation.
Greystone Mansion, formerly the Doheny Estate, in Beverly Hills, California, was built by oil magnate Edward L. Doheny as a gift to his son and family. Construction on the mansion started in 1927 and Edward “Ned” Laurence Doheny, Jr., moved in with his family in 1929. Only five months later, Ned was killed in an apparent murder-suicide by his longtime associate, Hugh Plunkett. The estate cost over $3 million, nearly $60 million in 2019, with over $1 million going into the construction of the house alone. Despite the tragedy, Lucy and her five children continued to live at Greystone until 1955.

The mansion is 46,054 square feet with 55 livable rooms. There are accommodations for a live-in staff of 15. The master bedroom suite is in the west wing, where a sitting room, two baths, a dressing room and a massage room offer the finest accoutrements to the owners. The recreation wing contains a movie theater, bowling alley, billiards room and a hidden bar. The butler’s pantry was part of the kitchen and was built to accommodate a wall safe that held the family’s silver and gold services.

Greystone Mansion is owned by the city of Beverly Hills at present. The land has been designated a public park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The mansion is frequently rented out as a venue for weddings and other events. It has been used as the backdrop for many movies and TV shows.

These homes today are, in many cases, in the public domain and open for tours though, at the present, tours may be suspended because of COVID-19. Treat yourself to the beauty of the American equivalent of Belle Époque and let your eyes feast on mansions and décor so extravagant that one can only sigh with envy. ■