The Elms was the first mansion I saw on my first day in Newport, and it was the perfect way to start my trip.
The Elms was built in 1901 for Edward and Herminie Berwind, who made their fortune in the coal industry. It was later occupied by Edward’s sister Julia. The house was designed by Horace Trumbauer of Philadelphia and decorated by Jules Allard and Sons of Paris. As one of the last major Newport mansions to be completed, The Elms feels the most modern even though it is built in much the same 18th-century French style. I think this is due to its use of lighter-colored woods and fabrics and somewhat less extravagant ornamentation. Overall, it is the most refined and elegant of the Newport mansions in my opinion. It has most of the same elements as the other houses, including the classical figures, decorative carvings, Chinoiserie, and dramatic dining room; yet, it’s uses these things more tastefully. Some highlights were the set of old Venetian paintings installed in the dining room, the curving wrought iron banisters, and the Rococo-style ceilings painted with allegorical figures. However, nothing excited me as much as the beautiful painting by Giovanni Boldoni, a portrait of Lady Decies aka Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, in the ballroom. I’ve looked at this painting online so many times but had no idea I would see it here. Before the Preservation Society acquired The Elms, its contents were sold off at auction. Some of the pieces have been reclaimed, but other objects in the house aren’t original to it. It’s difficult to tell which is which.
The Elms offers a guided Servant Life tour, which lasts one hour and takes you to areas otherwise inaccessible to visitors. First of all, me visited the third floor, which housed about a dozen servants. Apparently, the Berwinds were very concerned about their staff having nice living quarters. It seems that they were pretty successful, since the staff’s bedrooms were much nicer than a modern college dorm! The bathrooms in both the main living spaces and the servants’ quarters were quite modern, which surprised me. They wouldn’t look out of place in a house today. Our tour guide told the stories of some staff members who lived and worked here. Most of them were recent immigrants from Ireland or England. They seemed to have a pretty decent life, even thought they worked very long hours. Since they had all their accommodations provided, they were able to save money to venture out on their own pretty quickly. Next, we saw basement service areas like the laundry and the boilers, and we learned about the then-new technology that ran the house. Such infrastructure was important to Edward Berwind. The coal train was my favorite. It’s really interesting how all of the servants’ areas were light and spacious – much lighter than the Berwinds’ living areas, in fact – yet they were completely hidden from exterior view. For example, the service entrance was hidden from view by a massive arbor. Similarly, the servants’ rooms had plenty of light and fresh air thanks to numerous windows, but they were completely invisible on the façade thanks to a well-placed blind parapet. Apparently, the Berwinds wanted to make people think their house ran on magic instead of human effort. If you visit The Elms, I would highly recommend this Servant Life tour.