At 109, still hauntingly grandiose
NEWPORT, R.I. — “Mr. Berwind is angry with us,’’ said tour guide Barbara Caldwell after she had tried several times to secure the door to a basement laundry room at The Elms, the grandiose summer retreat built in 1901 for Edward J. Berwind, the Pennsylvania coal magnate.
Each time she latched it, the door creaked back open. Clearly Berwind’s ghost was protesting that we had overstayed our welcome.
In its heyday as one of the most fashionable houses on the most fashionable street (Bellevue Avenue) in the nation’s most fashionable resort, society guests arrived at The Elms for tea and rarely stayed longer than 30 minutes. As the dictum of the day stated, far better that your absence be regretted than your presence.
Not only was our tour group of a dozen lingering, we were doing so in an area — the staff quarters and work spaces — that would have been off-limits when Berwind (1848-1936) held sway. As we walked the large rooms where sumptuous meals were prepared and laundry and linens were washed, Caldwell encouraged children on the tour to pick up one of the heavy irons and imagine wielding it all day, as one of the Irish immigrant women who worked under the head laundress would have done.
The tour, the only one of its kind among the Preservation Society of Newport County’s properties, does not traverse the typical audio trail of grand rooms. It starts in the foyer and proceeds outside through the service entrance, basement storage and laundry rooms, the coal and wine cellars, a two-floor storage pantry for china and glassware, a massive kitchen, and up a back staircase to the top-floor staff quarters. It ends with a rooftop view of the mansion’s grounds and Newport Harbor.
Nearly all of the work of the house was done out of sight, with measures including a huge wisteria tree which, in bloom, hid the service entrance from view, and a tiny underground tunnel and railroad track that led to the street where coal was delivered — Berwind-White Co. coal, of course.
“The Elms was designed in the spirit of the Gilded Age,’’ said Caldwell. “Nothing was allowed to spoil the illusion of being in a French chateau.’’
Berwind’s villa was based on the château d’Asnières outside Paris, which was built in 1752. The architect of The Elms, which replaced an earlier Victorian-style home of the same name on the property, was Horace Trumbauer of Philadelphia. Trumbauer was little known at the time, but he would go on to design Harvard’s Widener Library, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and much of the Duke University campus.
The Elms was one of the first homes in the country outfitted with electricity, along with an ice-making machine and what passed for cutting-edge domestic science. Caldwell pointed out the tile walls of the staff areas, which bear a remarkable resemblance to those in New York subway stations.
“That’s because they used the same contractor,’’ said Caldwell. “It was thought at the time that tile was much more easily cleaned and more hygienic.’’
The daily operation of a Newport mansion might appear disarmingly easy to a guest of the time, but the reality was more than 40 staff members working in sync around the clock, particularly when the Berwinds were hosting an event.
“A typical day for the kitchen would require that breakfast be ready at 9 a.m.,’’ said Caldwell. “Luncheon would be at 1 o’clock, then perhaps a five-course picnic in the afternoon, complete with china, glasses, and wine. Tea was at 5 and dinner at 8. But if they were hosting a ball, dinner would be served at midnight and breakfast before dawn.’’
The guest list for such a Newport society ball might number 400, and they could be served as many as eight courses. You can look down from the two-level pantry lined with china cabinets into the kitchen, where pots with spigots that held 80 servings of soup and a huge mortar for grinding spices are among the chef’s batterie de cuisine on display.
The chef managed a staff that included an assistant chef, a pastry chef, two kitchen maids, a kitchen boy, and a maintenance engineer. His was one of three indoor hierarchies, with the others led by the housekeeper and the butler. The housekeeper counted chambermaids, a lady’s maid, and laundresses among her staff, while the butler directed valets, housemen, and footmen. The superintendent headed an outdoor staff of a dozen or more, including gardeners, grooms, coachmen, and a chauffeur.
“They really were mimicking the great houses of Europe, the Edwardian houses of the UK,’’ said Caldwell. “In fact, the  movie ‘Gosford Park,’ which is set in an English country home, gives you a good idea of what the interaction between the staff and the family would be like.’’
Newport’s summer season lasted just two months, July and August, and families such as the Berwinds typically brought their house staff with them from their New York residence (64th Street and Fifth Avenue). That core group was augmented by local help, who often didn’t stay in the staff quarters.
“The work ethic of the day was so different,’’ Caldwell said. “People in service were so loyal to the family. And proper etiquette was so important back then.’’
But it wasn’t all fealty and dapper monogrammed uniforms. Caldwell told of an ill-fated staff rebellion in the late 1920s, when the help at The Elms walked off the job in protest over long hours and other concerns. Berwind reportedly replaced every staff member within a day or two.
“These were sought-after jobs,’’ said Caldwell. “You were paid relatively well, fed, sometimes housed, and some even received medical care. And the staff traditionally got Thursday afternoons off. The workers would gather down at the Cliff Walk.’’
Many staff members came from Newport’s Fifth Ward, which was home to Irish, Italian, and German immigrants. Descendants of those workers provided diaries and other accounts that helped researchers create the behind-the-scenes tour. One such worker was Nellie Ragosa, an Italian immigrant who worked at The Elms, and whose photo hangs in the staff quarters.
Those quarters are on the top floor of the house, and include 13 bedrooms and three bathrooms. Top-level staff such as the chef or the head butler might have their own room, but all the rooms were tidy, and the dormitory-like layout opens onto a roof deck where they could relax if given a few free moments.
“You can’t see the third floor from the street,’’ said Caldwell, pointing out a balustrade that hides the windows of the staff quarters. Today a roof platform has been added, where tour goers can step above the facade and view the 10-acre grounds and Newport Harbor beyond.
“It’s difficult for children — and sometimes even young adults — to comprehend what life was like then,’’ said Caldwell, who has been conducting Preservation Society tours since 1996. “It’s so foreign to them. It’s truly make-believe.’’
When Berwind’s wife died in 1922, he asked his sister, Julia, to take over as hostess of The Elms. When Berwind died in 1936 at 88, Julia carried on as a Newport society matron. She continued to host an afternoon bridge party for many years, often enlisting the butler to make a foursome — though he was not allowed to actually sit at the table.
In 1961 Julia Berwind died at 96, and a year later, The Elms almost met the wrecking ball, when a nephew decided against trying to maintain this palace of an earlier era. He sold The Elms to a developer, who planned to tear it down and subdivide the acreage. The Preservation Society stepped in and bought the property, which had cost about $1.4 million to build, for less than $200,000.
“By the time of Julia Berwind’s death, only she and Edith Wetmore at Château-sur-Mer were keeping that style of Newport living going,’’ said Caldwell. “When they died, it was truly the end of an era.’’
Ron Driscoll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.