Newport’s 375 year history comes gloriously alive at Christmas. From the early Colonial days to the extravagant Gilded Age, our “City by the Sea” is in a most celebratory mood. It’s therefore almost impossible to believe that, prior to the late 1800’s, Christmas had been a quietly understated holiday in America. It was Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, who introduced the customs (from Germany) that we love today — the Christmas tree, Christmas cards, carol singers, gift giving and Santa Claus. And it was the newly wealthy American moguls of the Gilded Age who added their lavish statements to these new traditions…exemplified so well in Newport.
Three mansions of this period are open through the holidays- the Elms, Marble House and The Breakers. Treating myself recently to an afternoon within their rooms I’ve come home with images galore to share. Think gold, think gilt, think bountiful! Yes, they are decidedly over the top, but let’s look beyond the vast amount of marble and ormolu; lessons and inspiration abound, starting with a practical note from Jim Donahue (Curator of Historic Landscapes for the Preservation Society of Newport County, who “dresses” the three mansions for the holidays).
“Take inspiration from the space you are decorating for your color scheme and design theme. And most of all, concentrate your efforts in a focal area that is sure to be seen.”
The decorated trees alone are enough reason to visit the mansions– elegant, appropriate, stunning examples of how to design this important element to complement its surroundings. Where better to start than with the twenty foot tall live poinsettia tree in the Grand Hall of The Breakers. How perfect that it stops just short of the intricate molding, centered with an “emerald.”
At the other end of the Grand Hall is another tree scene, which reminds us that pairs of trees are a very effective choice for playing out the “bountiful” concept.
Some other favorite Christmas trees…
The tree in the entry hall of Marble House is inspired by the Venetian glass mirror facing it where silver (mixed with gold) mercury ornaments play off the silver mirror.
In homes of this period, which had a fireplace in (almost) every room, mantles provided a welcome opportunity for embellishment (I love the simple tree silhouettes, dusted with gold, of course).
In a bedroom, topiary forms add a garden note…
With such an already elaborate overmantle (and the scene created on the gilt wood table in front of it) the actual decorations for the mantle are kept very simple. What a lovely note — and idea– to suspend large red glass tree ornaments along the mantle’s edge.
At Marble House, a table vignette is an example of that which could be translated to a home of today. Just one of the three single clothed figures in their closures would make an elegant statement.
You might also enjoy an article I wrote for Newport Life magazine that further explores the Gilded Age in Newport at the holidays.