By Allison Nekola
Recently, 16 estates across the country hailed by Architectural Digest as “America’s Best Country Houses,” included seven New England properties all owned and operated by nonprofit organizations dedicated to preserving all the history and architectural culture these homes have to offer.
We first wrote about three properties under the stewardship of Historic New England: the Lyman Estate in Waltham, Massachusetts, Beauport, Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut. Here are the other four country homes — two Gilded Age mansions owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County, and two properties each owned by independent nonprofits.
Thanks to the dedication of enthusiastic preservationists, these properties continue to tell their stories through architecture and design. The summer season is an ideal time to explore these estates and see the decor and the gardens that attracted the original owners and continue to entice visitors today.
The Elms, Newport, RI:
The original modest cottage sat on 10 acres of land in Newport, Rhode Island, at the beginning of the 20th century. But it proved to be too pedestrian for owner Edward Berwind, so he tore it down and rebuilt a grand structure, one which stands today as The Elms, a National Historic Landmark. For its design, Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer looked to the 18th-century French chateau d’Asnieres located outside of Paris. Completed in 1901, The Elms is one of the most sophisticated houses of the time; Trumbauer wired it for electricity with no form of backup, even including electrical icemakers, one of the first of their kind.
The interior was designed to complement Berwind’s collection of Renaissance ceramics, 18th-century French and Venetian paintings, and Oriental jades, bringing together a cohesive theme of luxury and history.
In the seven years between 1907 and 1914, the lush landscape grew, embellished with a Classical Revival garden displaying marble and bronze sculptures, an entire park of fine specimen trees, and a separate garden. The terrain descends to the lower garden, a completely separate landscape with marble pavilions, fountains, and a sunken garden and carriage house and garage. In 1961, the house and most of its contents were sold at a public auction. In 1962, it was purchased by the Preservation Society of Newport County and opened to the public.
The Elms – 367 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI.
Open daily, May 23 – November 1, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., November 1 – January 3, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Admission, $16 for adults, $7 for youths.
The Breakers, Newport, RI:
The Breakers, located in Newport, Rhode Island, earned the title of the most magnificent of Newport’s summer “cottages.” It was designed in 1893 by architect Richard Morris Hunt to replace a wood-framed house that was destroyed in a fire in 1892. An international team of craftsmen and artisans turned the 70-room Italian Renaissance style palazzo inspired by the 16th-century palaces of Genoa and Turin into a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial status.
In addition to Hunt creating the house, Allard and Sons of Paris assisted with furnishings and fixtures, Austrian-born American sculptor Karl Bitter designed relief sculpture, and Boston architect Ogden Codman Jr. decorated the family quarters.
A 12-foot-high limestone and iron fence protects the waterfront property, which has stunning ocean views. Gladys Vanderbilt, the youngest daughter of the seven Vanderbilt children and the wife of Count Laszlo Szechenyi of Hungary, acquired the house in 1934 and opened it to the public in 1946 to raise funds for The Preservation Society of Newport County, which purchased the estate from her heirs in 1972.
The Breakers – 44 Ochre Point Avenue, Newport, RI.
Open daily, May 23 – June 27, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., June 28 – September 7, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.,
September 8 – November 1, 9 a.m. –5 p.m., November 1 – January 3, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Admission, $20.99 for adults, $6.99 for youths.
The Mount, Lenox, MA:
Overlooking Laurel Lake in Lenox, Massachusetts, The Mount remains a monument to Pulitzer Prize winner Edith Wharton. With its incredible architecture and decor, it stands with an unrivaled reputation as the only full expression of Wharton’s architectural interests — and is part of the mere five percent of National Historic Landmarks dedicated to women. Wharton herself was an “architect” on the job, working with architects Ogden Codman Jr. and Francis L.V. Hoppin as the house was constructed between the summer of 1901 and autumn of 1902.
The house reflects its owner, from the inspiration taken from The Decoration of Houses, published in 1897 and written with Codman, to deep crippling sorrows in her personal affairs. Built to resemble the Belton House, a 17th-century Palladian style English country house, The Mount’s design was also influenced by classical Italian and French influences. Other buildings such as the stable and gatehouse were built in the Georgian Revival style.
While the interior design and its many details were unable to be accurately described due to lack of documentation, the exterior was stucco, which had been painted white with green shutters, truly epitomizing unadulterated New England style. The house resides on 49½ acres sitting on a hillside with views to the lake and a large terrace that connects the house to the landscape.
The Mount – 2 Plunkett St., Lenox, MA.
Open daily, May 16 – October 31, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission, $18 for adults, $17 for seniors, $13 for students, free for visitors 18 and under.
Hildene, Manchester, VT:
Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of one of the most iconic presidents in American history, was the only child of Abraham and Mary Lincoln to reach adulthood. A successful businessman in his own right, he was the proud owner of the timeless Hildene estate. It took two years for the Boston architectural firm Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge to construct the 24-room Georgian Revival style house in 1903. The entrance displays a 1,000-pipe organ believed to be the oldest residential pipe organ with a player attachment still in its original location and still in working order in the United States. A gift from Robert to his wife Mary, it produces sweet melodies to this day. Robert and Mary’s daughter Jessie, designed the formal garden in 1907. It was modeled after French parterre gardens and reflected a stained-glass Romanesque cathedral window with beds of colored flowers representing the glass and privet hedges installed to represent the leading between panes. In mid-June, more than 1,000 peony blossoms from original plantings fill the garden with color.
Another section of the landscape had cutting and kitchen gardens, from which servants would gather an abundance of fruit, flowers, and vegetables for household use. A playhouse and reflecting pool were also installed for the Lincoln grandchildren. Paths and arbors have been restored and the flowers and vegetable beds replanted. An observatory on a high point of land northeast of the house is now used by the Education Department at Hildene, but was originally built for Robert’s personal use during his time at the estate.
Hildene – 1005 Hildene Road, Manchester, VT.
Open daily, 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Admission, $18 for adults, $5 for youths, free for members and children under six.
Great design is always at your fingertips! Read Design New England’s July/August issue online!