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R.I. mansion for sale; all you need is $16m

The Beechwood sits on 5 acres with spectacular ocean views on Newport's famous Bellevue Avenue. 'This is probably livable,' said tourist Mary Anne Kull. The Beechwood sits on 5 acres with spectacular ocean views on Newport's famous Bellevue Avenue. "This is probably livable," said tourist Mary Anne Kull. (FILE 1997/THE BOSTON GLOBE)

NEWPORT, R.I. -- It's small compared with the other houses on the block. Some say that is part of its charm.

"This is probably livable," said Mary Anne Kull, 61, a tourist from Ocean City, N.J., standing in the mansion's circular driveway.

Livable, maybe, if you've got $16 million.

The 39-room, 19,000-square-foot Gilded Age mansion -- a mere summer house to the Astor family that once owned it -- is on the market at an asking price that would make it one of the most expensive ever sold in this exclusive seaside community.

It sits on 5 acres with spectacular ocean views on Newport's famous Bellevue Avenue of immaculate hedges and dozens of opulent mansions. But its comparatively unimpressive bedroom dimensions and simple decor are what tourists and residents say make the Astors' Beechwood stand out.

"If I was going to buy a mansion, I think I'd be comfortable in this one," said Barbara Barattini, 64, of Easton, Pa. "Of course I'd have to have it updated."

Newport residents wondered this week who could be the next owner of the home that once served as a summer cottage and central meeting place for society's elite.

But the world of high-end real estate is shrouded in secrecy and few know who intends to purchase a property until the transaction occurs, residents said. Realtors at Lila Delman Real Estate could not be reached for comment and an employee said they do not talk about current listings or clients because they deal with expensive real estate.

Betty Ann Morris, 58, of Newport, said whether the property goes private or remains open to the public, she would hate to see it razed and hopes the new owners keep the structure intact.

"If that's what's going to be done, then I grant them my permission," Morris said, while painting a landscape outside her studio.

The home continues to operate daily public tours in which actors bring the history to life by playing Astor family guests or servants.

Daniel Parish, a New York merchant, had the Italianate house built in 1851 as a year-round dwelling. Newlyweds Caroline Schermerhorn and William Backhouse Astor Jr., heir to the family real estate fortune earned by his grandfather, John Jacob Astor, purchased the estate 30 years later for $190,000 and transformed it into a summer cottage. Today, the mansion has been assessed for taxes at roughly $6.5 million, according to an online assessing database.

Beechwood was one of several homes from Manhattan to Paris that the couple owned, but it became famous for hosting high-society guests for 25 years. Caroline Astor also was responsible for developing the "400" list of socially prominent people whose wealth went back more than three generations.

"Beechwood is one of the most prominent estates in the social history of the United States," said a statement from the home's current owner on Lila Delman's website.

William Backhouse Astor Jr. was the grandson of German immigrant and millionaire, John Jacob Astor, who made his fortune in fur trading and real estate. Other famous family members include William Astor's son, John Jacob Astor IV, who died in the Titanic sinking in 1912, and Brooke Astor, a New York philanthropist and socialite who married into the family. She died Aug. 13 at the age of 105.

Caroline Astor went to great lengths to match the richness of her events with the wealth of guests and even hired an architect to transform several rooms into a grand ballroom, which became the home's focal point.

Images of water nymphs and seashells carved out of plaster form detailing that circles the ceiling's perimeter and reflects from several towering mirrors.

The mansion has been restored to reflect the 1890s with some original objects and decor from that time period. One wing is still set up as if servants reside there and has a lower-class feel compared with the rest of the home, which is decorated in 10-foot tall oil paintings and expensive light fixtures.

The picturesque view of the Atlantic Ocean from one of three sets of French doors inside the ballroom explains Beechwood's price tag as massive homes sit perched along the shore, waves gently rolling in from the distance.

The mansions are still a big tourist attraction and hundreds of people walk the avenue each day, strolling in and out of the time-honored properties. Business owners said such homes have recently sold for much more than in previous years, which is good and bad for businesses in town.

Barry Fonseca, 50, owner and innkeeper of a bed and breakfast called the Pilgrim House Inn, said that although property taxes have risen in recent years, the higher resale values of the mansions are attractive. "If someone wanted to buy this for $16 million, I would certainly hand them the keys and walk away," Fonseca said. "I don't see that happening."