Visiting Marble House, Newport

Welcome to part II of my little series on visiting the Newport Mansions, Rhode Island! My last post had us wandering the hallways and grounds of perhaps the most famous of the Newport Mansions, the Breakers – today we’re going to explore the Marble House, a “summer cottage” (hilarious description) owned by another branch of the Vanderbilt family, as well as the formidable woman in charge of it…

The beautiful marble staircase at Marble House, Newport.

A birthday present

Marble House was built by William Kissam Vanderbilt, younger brother of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who built the Breakers. It was intended as a 39th birthday present for his wife Alva Vanderbilt (quite the present!), and was built over four years between 1888 and 1892. 

Alva worked closely with the architect Richard Morris Hunt – who would in 1892 go on to design the Breakers. 

For the love of all things French

Alva was heavily influenced by her love of French history, art and architecture. Though born in Mobile, Alabama in 1853, she was mainly schooled in France. You can very much see all of this throughout the house’s design. The exterior in particular looks very similar to the Petit Trianon at the Palace of Versailles.

Le Petit Trianon at the Château de Versailles, the inspiration for Marble House, Newport.

No expense was spared – the rose-coloured marble in the dining room was even imported from Algeria.

The ornate rose-coloured marble – spectacularly decorated with gold detail.

A formidable woman

Alva was quite an unruly child, and one who from a small age was famous for hitting back at any boy who would taunt her, and would fight (literally) to get what she wanted. As she got older, and the Civil War happened, her family lost much of its money, so she resolved to increase their fortune by marrying well.

In 1875, she married William K. Vanderbilt, and set about carving out her family’s place in society.

More marble details in the entrance hall.

Dynastic ambition

This included throwing a huge costume ball at their mansion in New York (also Richard Morris Hunt-designed, at 660 Fifth Avenue) in March 1883.

When I say huge, I mean huge – around a thousand people were invited. In a pointed move, Alva did not directly invite the queen of New York Gilded Age society, Mrs. Astor (as Caroline Astor became so infamously known), as she had previously snubbed the Vanderbilts as new money. Mrs. Astor had to ask for an invitation.

Another way she secured the family name and legacy was by engineering the marriage of her oldest child, daughter Consuelo (1877-1964), to the Duke of Marlborough.

This was despite the fact Consuelo was deeply in love with and secretly engaged to Winthrop Rutherford – Alva kept her daughter almost imprisoned at Marble House until she agreed to the marriage set out before her, and even threatened to shoot Winthrop. Consuelo eventually became an admired hostess at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, and was good friends with her husband’s cousin, Winston Churchill.

So much damask, so much carving, so much detail!

Marble House details

Alva’s very own Newport mansion, Marble House, was then another expression of the wealth of the Vanderbilt family. There are some really wonderful features in here, including the ‘his’ and ‘hers’ offices either side of the staircase. These would be used as cloakrooms for guests when they were entertaining.

My photos of the his and hers offices were too bad to share (wish I’d checked when I was there!), but this little landing halfway up the stairs, as the staircase turned, was where you could find the offices on either side, facing each other.

A new chapter

In 1895, after twenty years of marriage (and only three years after her extravagant birthday present from her husband had been completed), Alva divorced William on the grounds of his affairs (though it has been speculated that he hired somebody to pose as his mistress so that Alva would divorce him, as they had fallen out of love with each other).

A spectacular gothic fireplace.

The following year, she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont – another millionaire who was part of the Belmont banking family. She changed her name to Ava Belmont, and moved a little up the same road that Marble House was located on to Belcourt mansion. 

Votes for women

Moving into the twentieth century, Alva took on a new cause as a suffragist, in particular throwing herself into the movement after her husband passed away in 1908.

Alva’s “Votes for Women” China. They sold teacups to match in the gift shop, I was so annoyed I didn’t have room in my suitcase to get one!

Chinese Tea House

A particular feature of the grounds of Marble House is Alva’s Chinese Tea House. This time, she hired the sons of Richard Morris Hunt to build it for her. They travelled to China to study traditional architecture and began building it in 1913. The interior walls are covered in murals based on the Ming dynasty period (1368-1644) by William Andrew Mackay, an American artist.

The Chinese Tea House in the grounds of Marble House, built by the sons of Richard Morris Hunt.

The tea house became part of Alva’s campaign for women’s suffrage – the first event there was held on the 8th July, 1914, and was a rally in honour of great women. It was only used by her for three years – she shut up the mansion when the US joined the First World War in 1917 and later sold it in 1932. 

Postscript: A Happy Ending for Consuelo

As formidable as Alva was, I couldn’t help but be captured by the story of her daughter Consuelo, who had been forced by her mother into a marriage she hadn’t chosen for herself. So I felt like it was important here to include Consuelo Vanderbilt’s happy ending!

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, where Consuelo was mistress of upon her marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. It was common knowledge that he married her for her dowry, to save his huge ancestral home of Blenheim.

Consuelo dedicated herself to fighting against social injustice in both her adopted home of the UK and her homeland of the US, including women’s suffrage. She also founded the Homes for Prisoner’s Wives and Children in London, which gave affordable places to live for working women. 

She eventually divorced the Duke of Marlborough, and when she was forty-three years old, married Jacques Balsan. Balsan was a French aviator, and they had a very happy marriage. After escaping France during the Second World War due to being on the Nazi hostage list because of her work in hospitals, Consuelo and Jacques lived in the US.

Read more here: 

The US National Park Service’s Women’s History Month Post on Alva has some fabulous photographs of her throughout her life, and a more in depth biography.

Sheila Gibson Stoodley’s article “All Gilt, No Gilt” for the Boston Common is a fascinating read about Alva’s life and the way she conducted herself.

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