The Elms

The Elms is a large mansion, or "summer cottage", located at 367 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, Rhode Island, in the United States. The Elms was designed by architect Horace Trumbauer for the coal baron Edward Julius Berwind, and was completed in 1901. Its design was copied from the Château d'Asnières in Asnières-sur-Seine, France. The gardens and landscaping were created by C. H. Miller and E. W. Bowditch, working closely with Trumbauer. The Elms has been designated a National Historic Landmark and today is open to the public.

The estate


The estate was constructed from 1899 to 1901 and cost approximately 1.5 million dollars to build. Like most Newport estates of the Gilded Age, The Elms is constructed with a steel frame with brick partitions and a limestone facade.

On the first floor the estate has a grand ballroom, a salon, a dining room, a breakfast room, a library, a conservatory, and a grand hallway with a marble floor. The second floor contains bedrooms for the family and guests as well as a private sitting room. The third floor contains bedrooms for the indoor servants.

In keeping with the French architecture of the house, the grounds of The Elms, among the best in Newport, were designed in French eighteenth-century taste and include a sunken garden. On the edge of the property a large carriage house and stables were built, over which lived the stable keepers and gardeners. When the Berwind family began using automobiles, the carriage house and stables were converted into a large garage. The head coachman, in order to keep his job, became the family driver, but he could never learn to back up, so a large turntable had to be installed in the garage.

That structure was later replaced by a purpose built, two story 125 x 70-foot (21 m) building of limestone. Constructed beginning in 1910, it was the largest private garage in America, and featured a central indoor track, and two integral gas tanks.

History


The Berwind family started spending their summers in Newport in the 1890s. By 1898, it was clear that their original property (a small traditional beach cottage) was too small for the grand parties the Berwinds were having, and so they had the place torn down. Berwind hired Horace Trumbauer to build a much larger house, better fitting his status. Like many of the grandest summer residents of Newport, Edward Berwind was "new money" (his parents were middle-class German immigrants); by 1900 his friends included Theodore Roosevelt and Kaiser Wilhem II of Germany as well as many high-ranking government leaders from Europe and America. At this time Berwind was hailed as "one of the 59 men who rule America", making him one of Newport's most important summer residents.

Berwind was interested in technology, and The Elms was one of the first homes in America to be wired for electricity with no form of backup system. The house also included one of the first electrical ice makers. It was one of the most sophisticated houses of the time. When The Elms opened in 1901 the Berwinds held a huge party.

During the next 20 years, Berwind's wife, Sarah, would spend the summers there, the season being from the 4th of July to the end of August; Berwind would come out only on weekends, for his coal-mining interests kept him in New York during the week. Though the Berwinds had no children, their nephews and nieces would come out to visit on a regular basis.

In 1922 Mrs. Berwind died, and Edward asked his youngest sister Julia A. Berwind to move in and become the hostess of The Elms. In 1936 when he died, he willed the house to Julia, who, not being interested in technology, continued to run the house in the same way for the next twenty five years: washers and dryers were never installed at the Elms. Julia, was well-known in Newport. She would invite children from the nearby Fifth Ward (a working-class immigrant neighborhood) to the estate for milk and cookies. She had a love for cars and would drive around Newport every day in one of her luxury cars. This was somewhat shocking to the rest of Newport society where it was considered "unladylike" for women to drive themselves. It was rumored that her social secretary would perform the "white glove test" to make sure there was no dust on the steering wheel before Julia got into the driver's seat.

Preservation


In 1961 when Julia Berwind died, The Elms was one of the very last Newport cottages to be run in the fashion of the Gilded Age: forty servants were on staff, and Miss Berwind's social season remained at six weeks. Childless, Julia Berwind willed the estate to a nephew, who did not want it and fruitlessly tried to pass The Elms to someone else in the family. Finally the family auctioned off the contents of the estate and sold the property to a developer who wanted to tear it down. In 1962, just weeks before its date with the wrecking ball, The Elms was purchased by the Preservation Society of Newport County for $116,000. Price included the property along with adjacent guest houses. Since then, the house has been open to the public for tours. On June 19, 1996, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

A tour of The Elms can include, at a cost, a behind-the-scenes tour which brings visitors to the basement to view the coal-fired furnaces and the tunnel from which the coal is brought into the basement from a nearby street. The tour shows the lengths to which Mr. Berwind went to keep the servants out of view from guests on all floors of the mansion. Visitors on the "downstairs" tour view the laundry room, steamer trunk storage area, the giant circuit breaker box, ice-makers, galley, and wine cellar below the main floor, and then ascend the three-story service staircase to the servants' quarters (spartan but comfortable) at roof level, which are furnished as they were at the turn of the twentieth century. The tour then proceeds out on the level tiled roof and a small aluminum platform, where visitors enjoy the view of the rear lawn, weeping beech tree—the American Elms having succumbed to Dutch elm disease—and gardens, and the breathtaking vista of Newport harbor in the distance.

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