The 1% of the One Percent: Snow, Lobster, and McMansions in Newport, RI

Last weekend Olivier and I celebrated our fifth anniversary (and my birthday, and his birthday, and Valentines Day…they’re ALL within a week of each other!) with a trip to Newport, Rhode Island — as I found out, it was founded in 1639 as a haven for Baptists fleeing religious prosecution. There we stayed at the Vanderbilt Grace:


A Gilded Age hotel built by and once the home of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the residence was later transformed into a YMCA, then renovated into one of many historical Newport hotels for New England tourists who come to see the area’s beautifully preserved landmark buildings.

After nearly four hours first of train, then crawling 30mph on the highway through a snowstorm (with me, the Arizonan, as the driver, never having driven through snow in my life and nearly skidding out once on black ice) we were met at the hotel with two glasses of champagne and some sweet treats:


We trekked through the snow (much more beautiful than the black ice and slush that quickly results from snow storms in New York):


To get beer and lobster rolls at Brick Alley, a bar & restaurant right around the corner from our hotel. I have literally never eaten a roll with so much lobster…a generous cup full of meaty chunks, it must have been at least two lobsters’ worth…for less than $20 (in New York a roll half this size would cost $30):


Completely stuffed, we called it a night. The next morning we woke and had a champagne brunch and headed out to the Vanderbilt Breakers mansion, now converted into a museum by the Preservation Society of Newport, who makes it their mission to care for the Gilded Age mansions:


No photos alas were allowed inside the Breakers. But after we left, Olivier and I talked about what we saw. I make fun of Olivier for being a snobby Frenchman, so I was expecting him to be the one laughing at the silly Americans’ version of a “historical” site. But I was actually way less impressed than he was. For one, the architecture and design was a total ripoff: all of it was a mixture of Renaissance- style Italian palazzos mixed with 19th century French chateaux. Created by the son of the “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, who literally invented the American railroad, the house was intended to be a work of art. No doubt, it was beautiful…but it definitely wasn’t original, which to me is the opposite of art. The most original touches was in a sculpture fresco on the wall, where two cherubs had a railroad car running in the back in a nod to the family business).

70 rooms and 138,300 square feet, with walls covered in 18 to 24-carat gold leaf and…get this…platinum leaf (which was apparently just as expensive back in the day as it is today), it’s definitely an early McMansion. The one percent of the one percent. This was what really got me. When we reached the room of Gertrude Vanderbilt (who eventually became an artist and founded the Whitney Museum of Art in New York), we heard how she was devastated she was the day she realized she was a heiress (“no one would love me for who I am!”). Then later heard of how one Vanderbilt, who inherited $100 million in the mid-20th century and turned it into $200 million — an unheard-of fortune at the time — lamented what a “burden” it was for his kids to have so much money (“how could they possibly manage it all?!”). Then we learned how their fortunes quickly disappeared when the income tax was created in 1913, bringing the Gilded Age to an end and making families like the Vanderbilts much less wealthy.

While I know the family at some point gave to charity and created hospitals and art museums, clearly their giving was only a small portion of what they were earning given that simply creating a tax was enough to end their wealth. The hypocrisy was what really got me: we heard of “how religious” the family was, how they went to church every week and relied on their religion to get them through rough family tragedies — yet they clearly were keeping a whole lot of their wealth to themselves to build expensive Renaissance replicas. This is the problem with religion to me: it’s so easy to pick and choose what works for you and ignore what doesn’t.

Anyway, after a quick rant about the Vanderbilts, we took a walk outside, which Olivier and I agreed was our favorite part of the trip:


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That night, more delicious lobster and scallops at The Black Pearl (some of the best seafood I’ve ever had) and billiards at our hotel:


Net-net: Definitely worth a long weekend. And maybe a re-visit for more fresh lobster and beach in the summer.


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