NEWPORT, R.I. -- The museum mansions of the Newport Preservation Society comprise the fifth-largest tourist draw in New England. But many of Newport's grand houses remain in private hands, hidden from tourists by high walls and hedges.
This weekend, though, fans of the public Newport can get glimpses of the private Newport, in its gardens if not in its homes. A tour organized by the group Benefactors of the Arts has gained access to the grounds of the New York Yacht Club and six private gardens, including one owned by retired US senator Claiborne Pell and his wife, Nuala, and another across the street that was once owned by author Edith Wharton.
One of the most beautiful formal gardens on the tour is at Parterre, the French Normandy-style chateau of Jonathan and Bettie Pardee. She is author of a new, lushly photographed book called "Private Newport" that documents 18 swank private homes. Although Parterre was built to look old, it's a recent addition to Bellevue Avenue on a lot where the August Belmont estate was leveled 50 years earlier.
Another gem of the tour is the three-acre grounds of Bellevue House, which has been owned by only three families since Ogden Codman designed it for his niece in 1910. In 1964, singer Jane Pickens Langley bought it at auction and entertained Newport society there with husband Walter Hoving, chairman of
Its grounds were designed in part by Achille Duchene, Fleming said with pride. "He was the most distinguished French landscape designer of his time. He restored the grounds at Versailles and Blenheim (Winston Churchill's birthplace) when he was not working on my garden." The grounds feature rectangular hedges centered around geometric plantings of linden trees in a classical European style seldom seen in America. But the jewel of his property is a 1923 reproduction of a 2 1/2-story teahouse, and he plans to add another one soon.
President of the Townscape Institute, a Cambridge-based public interest think tank, and author of the forthcoming "The Art of Place Making," Fleming is one of the relatively few Bostonians at the center of Newport's rarefied swirl of summer parties, regattas, and charity events. "In the early days, there were Bostonians who came to Newport, but the financial firepower of New York and Chicago was more powerful and their style much more grand. When these giant mansions were built and the social play became heavier, many Bostonians decamped to the Berkshires and Maine," he said.
"There's still a community here connected by blood to the original families. There are fifth-generation Newport summer residents," Fleming added. "The axis between Palm Beach, New York City, and Newport is still quite strong, and adds glitter and glamour. People don't have the rituals of the 1890s, when they changed their clothes seven times a day, but there's a definite rigor. Thank you notes are written. Entertainment is given. Much more so than I've observed in Boston and Cambridge."
Newport society endures with the Yacht Club, the Clambake Club, and Bailey's Beach -- ultra-exclusive sailing, dining, and beach clubs -- as gatekeepers of the pecking order. Except for more traffic, "there's no change in Newport at all, as far as I can see," said Nuala Pell. The community's octogenarian grand dowager, Eileen Slocum, agreed. "It hasn't changed. I see the grandchildren of people I've known here. I am shaking little hands on the beach and saying, `I knew your great-grandparents.' "
As her state's National Republican Committee woman, Slocum has hosted many fund-raisers, including a dinner with Vice President Dick Cheney at her castle of pink stone, with its marble ballroom. "We raised $198,000 for the Republican Party in two hours, and I was sitting next to a man who looked at me pityingly and said, "We raised over $1 million at our fund-raiser in Connecticut." She has photos of herself and her family with Ronald Reagan ("a dear man") and the elder George Bush at Bailey's Beach ("handsomer than his son, but his son's doing very well, I think").
Though the famed Olmsted Brothers firm designed gardens for Slocum's home and others, relatively little that is original remains but stonework and specimen trees. The gardens on tour this weekend are almost all new or restored.
"This was once Edith Wharton's rose garden," said another grand dame, Marion Oates "Oatsie" Charles, as she surveyed the sunken quadrangle of her diversely planted and immaculately maintained oceanfront flower beds. "I cannot tell you where each rose was planted," she added archly.
Still, the past gets recycled. Two cement rabbits that frame the entrance to the sunken garden are copies of a missing pair Charles had long coveted at nearby Chateau-sur-Mer, now a house museum. After a search, she said, they turned up "in a trailer park. The wife of a gardener had them. They had been given to him, so we couldn't take them back, but she let us copy them -- and I got the first casting!"
Charles's daughter now lives in Land's End, the converted farmhouse that Wharton bought "to get away from her mother," said Charles, who moved next door, converting its eight-car garage into an elegant jewel box. Refurbishments include 18th-century English paneling she bought at auction from Marble House, now another mansion museum.
In the mid-20th century, Newport's unmatched architectural treasures were saved by two preservation groups. Billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke founded the Newport Restoration Foundation, which saved scores of 18th-century houses in the colonial part of town, while the Newport Preservation Society focused its attention on the Gilded Age mansions of the Bellevue Avenue area built a century later. Other mansions survived by conversion into exclusive condos.
"It's better than having them torn down," said Fleming, "as happened in resort towns that wouldn't allow the condos."
But the wealth boom of the `90s spurred a new generation with the ambition to live large -- very large -- and helped put Newport's private mansions on more secure footing. Now there are more ambitious new private gardens and restoration projects for old ones.
James Leach of Providence acquired the Malbone estate in 1995, with its 17 overgrown acres of circa-1850 marble pavilions, fountains, stone-lined reflecting ponds, terraces, and perhaps the largest private collection of beech trees in the Northeast. "We've done a lot of restoration," said Leach. "In August we had a dinner reception there for US Supreme Count Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as part of an anniversary celebration of Touro Synagogue," the nation's oldest.
The 1848 Gothic-style castle on Malbone Road, Newport's oldest mansion, will be the setting for a champagne gala preview party ($75 per couple at the door) tomorrow night from 5 to 7. Advance tickets ($30) are required for a garden tea Sunday at 4:30 p.m., hosted by Eileen Slocum at her Bellevue Avenue home with wine, sandwiches, and a trunk show of apparel by fashion designer Rachel Balaban to celebrate the Benefactors' 20th anniversary.
Proceeds help the Aquidneck Island public schools. Over two decades, Benefactors of the Arts, headed by Myra H. Duvally, has given almost $1 million to its arts programs. The tour's chairwoman is Mary Riggs.
Secret Garden Tour, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday; rain or shine. Tickets, $25 and valid for both days, can be purchased at the Newport Visitors Center on Americas Cup Avenue or at the tour information booth in the Newport Art Museum, 76 Bellevue Ave. Ticket holders will also be able to tour the grounds of three museum estates Belcourt Castle, The Elms, and Rough Point with discounts for museum house tours. For more information or to reserve tickets, call 401-847-0514 or visit www.secretgardentour.com.