This house is ... gargantuan! No less than 70 rooms, including a ballroom, a music room, a library, living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms ...! And throughout, it's laden with marble and gilt. This was one of the mansions owned by the Vanderbilt family, one of THE most powerful families in their day, who became rich thanks to the railroads. This is where the glitterati came for parties; even JFK stayed here.
I noticed 2-3 small details that amused and surprised me, with the help of the audio guide:
- A bathtub carved from a single block of marble, designed to resemble a Roman coffin. It was so thick that it had to be emptied and refilled several times to keep the water hot. There were four taps, two freshwater and two saltwater, as the latter was considered healthy at the time!
- The staircase of the house was built to look like the Opera Garnier in Paris! Moreover, even the guests enjoyed sliding down the banisters here!
- From the testimonies of former servants, we learned that people changed their clothes 6-7 times a day, sometimes taking two baths a day. Their sheets were changed twice a day, and towels were changed after each use.
What crazy lives these people led!
In Newport’s quiet Touro Park, which feels worlds away from the bustling, touristy parts of this famous town, stands an unsolved mystery. It’s called (among other names) the Old Stone Mill, though no one knows for sure what it was built for, or when. It may have been a windmill in early Colonial times, but it has also inspired some far stranger origin myths.
Visit the park (really just a few minutes from Newport’s major attractions) and ponder how the stone structure got here. Maybe you agree with one of the existing theories (the Vikings? the Chinese?) or perhaps you’d rather invent your own conspiracy.
Historic streets lined with cute shops in a relaxing waterfront setting are standard issue in any coastal vacation town. But Newport does it better than most, because here, a few of those atmospheric streets are actually functioning wharfs extending into Newport Harbor.
The big ones are Bowen’s Wharf and Bannister’s Wharf. Both offer plenty of shopping and dining options, not to mention refreshing views of the water. You can also find accommodations and boat cruises here.
Both of the large wharfs (along with many smaller ones) are perpendicular to Thames Street, where you can continue to ramble, browse, eat, and drink for hours. And bring your camera, because Newport’s wharfs, and much of the rest of the city, are picture-perfect.
Historically, Rhode Island has been a refuge for those who weren't welcome elsewhere, so it’s not surprising that America’s oldest synagogue can be found in Newport.
The outside of the Touro Synagogue, completed in 1763, doesn't hint at the restrained magnificence of the interior. Frequent tours teach visitors about the building as well as a bit of Jewish, Rhode Island, and American history, including the story of George Washington’s famous letter, "To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” known to many Americans for its assertion that the United States Government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
The synagogue, still home to an active congregation, is also open for services. And be sure to walk over to the historic cemetery, which poetry lovers might recognize from Longfellow’s “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.”