Luxuriantly set amongst emerald green lawns, embowered by magnificent trees and surrounded by lush rose gardens, Rosecliff (1902) is a tempting place. So much so, that in 1949 J. Edgar Monroe, a prominent New Orleans businessman, laid eyes upon the gleaming white villa and purchased it immediately. Inspired by a French king’s garden retreat, built by a legendary Newport hostess and designed by one of the Gilded Age’s most flamboyant architects, a sense of theater and fantasy pervades the atmosphere and every detail of Rosecliff.
Theresa “Tessie” Fair Oelrichs was the driving force behind the creation of Rosecliff. The Nevada silver heiress required a showpiece for her Newport “cottage” and the opulent parties she envisioned for the summer social season. Architect Stanford White created an exquisite house, clad in gleaming white terra cotta tiles delicately adorned with cascades of flowers and musical instruments.
White took the Grand Trianon (1687) as his model. And why not? Only the finest garden retreat of the famed King of France, Louis XIV, would do for one of the reigning queens of Gilded Age society. Louis XIV referred to the Grand Trianon as his “Palace of Flora” where he could cultivate the finest flowers and dine out of doors. The same spirit permeates Rosecliff with its large central ballroom opening on to terraces and garden courtyards. Architecture and nature are in complete harmony in this ensemble meant to invoke an air of fantasy, of an escape into a magical world. And that is precisely what Tessie had in mind.
Clipped yew in the gardens of Versailles, the model for the garden court of Rosecliff.
Clipped arborvitae and a classical urn in the manner of garden design at Versailles.
Bay tree in the garden courtyard, inspired by the classical gardens of Versailles.
In 1902, even before the completion of construction, Tessie hosted a housewarming reception, covering the unfinished section of the building with white hollyhocks and roses. Of all the entertainments, two stand out as the shining moments of Rosecliff and its enchanted social whirl : first, the White Ball of 1904. Instructing all female guests to wear white period costume and white powdered wigs of the Louis XIV period, the hostess devised a party where guests were key players in her romantic recreation of a night at Louis XIV’s court.
What to do next? The height of fantasy could be attained only through classic fairy tales, so Tessie invited an entire storybook of characters to a ball. Dressed as Mother Goose, she greeted guests disguised as Little Bo-Peep, Tom Thumb, Sleeping Beauty and a cast of hundreds at the doors of Rosecliff. Colored lights illuminated the grounds while the house burst with every type of bloom (recreated today when the Nutcracker Ballet is performed every holiday in the ballroom and throughout the house).
And the rose garden of Rosecliff? The noted horticulturalist, George Bancroft, owned the original wooden cottage called “Rosecliff,” which Tessie Oelrichs purchased and replaced with the current house. Bancroft’s rose cuttings were used to develop the American Beauty rose, the signature flower of the Gilded Age.
The fairy tale ended for Rosecliff with the advent of World War I and Tessie’s passing in 1926. Although the Great Depression and war took its toll on Newport and the larger world, Rosecliff still had the power to enchant. Gertrude Neissen, a noted singer, bought the house for a reported $21,000 but lived in it for only a few seasons. Ray Alan Van Clief acquired the estate and carefully restored it after major damage caused by faulty heating systems. En route to spend his first night at Rosecliff, he was killed in a car accident. It appeared the house might never regain its former glory, except for the remarkable man from New Orleans. Not only did J. Edgar Monroe buy Rosecliff, but he brought it back to life and assured its future. The Monroes filled the mansion with southern hospitality, warmth and humor. According to a Newport friend of the Monroes, a visiting French dignitary in the 1950s seemed little interested in Rosecliff’s association with Louis XIV’s Grand Trianon, for he asked Mr. Monroe not about the house, but if he was related to Marilyn Monroe. Mr. Monroe smiled, informed him otherwise and offered him another drink.
Mr. Monroe may not have been related to a movie star, but his house was a star in its own right. After donating Rosecliff to the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1971, the house attracted the attention of Hollywood. Paramount Pictures used the house as the setting for its 1973 production of The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Film makers saw that elusive quality of romance and fantasy so brilliantly created by Tessie Oelrichs and Stanford White, and so perfectly preserved by J. Edgar Monroe.
For the past twenty years, Roseclif has hosted the Newport Flower Show with its beautiful gardens recreated on the front lawn and floral arrangements throughout the house. Tessie and George Bancroft would surely have approved!
As I head down to New Orleans on my book tour, I thank my friend and colleague, John Tschirch, for providing this compelling story about one of Newport’s most beloved Gilded Age mansions. An award winning architectural historian, photographer and writer, John is the author of a historical fiction trilogy set in 17th century France ( due out in Spring of 2017) his photography may be seen at www.johnstories.com.