- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2001

NEWPORT, R.I. — The magnificent mansions of this fabled seaside resort are forever linked to their builders: Gilded Age titans with immense fortunes made from banking, trade, railroads and steel.
Choosing the proper location for one's 40- to 100-room Georgian, Tudor or Italianate pile (always called "cottages" by those-in-the-know) was just as crucial a matter as deciding which monopoly to exploit. By the 1880s, Bellevue Avenue, with its Cliff Walk and magnificent ocean views, had become the definitive address for discerning plutocrats who "summered" here for eight to 12 weeks of the year along with household staffs of 40 or more.
The Astors presided at Beechwood and Beaulieu. Vanderbilts held court at the Breakers and Marble House. There were Belmonts at Belcourt Castle, Van Alens at Wakehurst, Goelets at Ochre Court, Oelrichses at Rosecliff.
The Elms, a fabulous French neoclassical chateau, was in a class all its own when it was completed exactly 100 years ago for Philadelphia coal magnate E.J. Berwind and his wife Hermoine. Filled with paintings, tapestries and other art treasures, the vast marble residence boasted a 14-acre park and gardens plus all the "modern" conveniences (refrigeration, electric lighting, bathrooms) as well. The total cost was staggering for the time: about $1.4 million ($22 million today).
The centenary of a such an important and beloved landmark was hardly going to pass unnoticed in this most social of social towns, of course, and since Newporters do love a party, it isn't any wonder that the celebratory events of Aug. 3-4 turned out to be the highlight of the season.

The wag who wrote a century ago that the pampered ladies of Newport "have never heard the first half of an opera or read the last half of a book" would be astonished to find their latter-day contemporaries adopting a decidedly hands-on approach with regard to philanthropic duties. That was certainly the case with social dynamos Nanette Herrick, Didi Lorillard, Ala von Auersperg Isham and Kim Herrlinger, who joined forces to produce the Aug. 3 cocktail party and auction celebrating the $2.3 million restoration of the Elms' garden and fountains.
After all, who could say no when such a high-powered quadrumvirate put out the call for glamorous goodies to benefit the Preservation Society of Newport County, which owns and manages the Elms and many of the other historic house museums.
Friends were quick to offer private ski lodges, beach houses and island retreats and at least one cruise on a sleek motor yacht to help the cause. Angela Brown Fischer, the sister of J. Carter Brown, went one step further, raiding her bank vault to come up with a treasure of particular interest to those who knew her mother, Mrs. John Nicholas Brown. The late Newport grande dame's 14-carat gold Verdura cigarette case with ruby clasp, circa 1940, was an eye-popping lot that was hard to resist, and a bargain for Frederick H. Prince, who snapped it up for $3,200.
Such generosity would seem to be par for the course as far as helping preserve the Elms is concerned. Susan Stautberg, the Berwinds' great-great niece and the force behind the weekend activities, pointed out that the estate would not exist in its preserved condition if a group of 10 Newport residents hadn't contributed $10,000 apiece to save it from being razed and turned into a shopping center in 1962.
Furnishing it was another matter, but again concerned citizens came to the rescue. "When the contents were auctioned off," Mrs. Stautberg said, "people bought many of the items and donated them back."
Other historically minded donors contributed pieces of their own to fill the cavernous rooms. The Elms' dining room table, for example, once graced the Paris home of Newport grandee John R. Drexel III's grandparents. Now, whenever he sees it, he feels "right at home."

Organizers relied on contemporary news accounts to successfully recreate details of the Aug. 9, 1901, opening-night extravaganza. Just as then, footmen in the Berwind brown velvet summer livery greeted guests at the entrance Aug. 4 as a Gypsy orchestra played lively airs in the great hall filled with masses of Newport summer flowers. Palm trees graced the enormous garden pavilion where a society orchestra (Peter Duchin's) played music for dancing, although there were none of the elaborate quadrilles performed at the Berwinds' 18th-century French fantasy-themed event. Nor were there any trained monkeys romping about just for fun. (At the 1901 party, a few got loose from their trainers, jumped over the walls and escaped). This time, monkey topiaries and a couple of costumed mimes sufficed.
Ethel Barrymore and Alice Roosevelt Longworth were among the VIP guests on opening night, and there was certainly no shortage of major names at the successor event, either. Vanderbilt and Astor descendants, du Ponts, Drexels, Auchinclosses, Slocums, Cushings, van Beurens and at least 35 members of the far-flung Berwind clan turned out to raise an estimated $300,000 for the cause.
Anita McAndrews, another Berwind great-great niece, was among the few who knew the house in its final years as a private residence, when it was the home of E.J. Berwind's sister, Julia Berwind (who inherited it from him).
Mrs. McAndrews, who was only 7 or 8 years old at the time, remembered being told not to giggle when eating in the austere family dining room and to be sure to keep her finger on her plate if she wanted to finish her food. "If I didn't," she said, "it would be taken away by one of the footmen who stood behind each chair."
Guests dining on seafood timbale, grilled filet of beef and chocolate pate with Sabayon sauce also included many Washingtonians who traditionally summer here. Among those spotted in the crowd: Ruth Buchanan Wheeler, who, as the last of the original 10 Elms donors, was asked to push the button to make the fountains flow again; George Herrick, Betty Burton, Nina Straight, Bonnie and Charles Matheson (who brought one of their horse-drawn coaches up from Middleburg, Va.), Nicholas Scheetz, Outerbridge and Georgina Horsey, Constance Bruce, Mathews and Maizie Dick and Tommy Quinn.
It was the kind of multigenerational party that Newporters love, with three generations of a family apt to be on the dance floor at the same time, kicking up their heels to tunes that ranged from Cole Porter favorites to "Disco Inferno."
And a tightly knit crowd as well, as several guests observed with evident approval. "There must be 700 people here," longtime seasonal resident Diana Prince noted from her patron's table near the dance floor, "and I think I know half of them."
Most likely they'll all be back next year when they heed the call for the centennial of Rosecliff, another vast "cottage" a few doors down.
As Preservation Society Chairman John Winslow, a 78-year Newport resident, pointed out, care of the town's extraordinary homes is a never-ending cause for concern of which all true Newporters are mindful: "There are constant expenses with all these white elephants. You start repairs on one of them, and the next thing you know, the roof falls in."

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