2015-11-25 / Front Page

Year-Round Effort Readies Mansions for Holidays

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Haul out the holly: Christmas at the Newport Mansions has begun.

The lights are up. The 26 trees, inside and out, are decorated. The halls are decked and the many mantels have been transformed. Glitter is everywhere. The 15- foot poinsettia tree dominates the grand loggia of The Breakers, and the 3,000 big potted poinsettias— which were tiny two-inch cuttings in July—have all found a spot.

The Preservation Society of Newport County’s three signature Gilded Age cottages—The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House—are open and ready for business, welcoming visitors from the daily flow of mansion-watchers to those attending the special events that will dot the PSNC holiday landscape.

On the calendar this year are familiar favorites, with a few tweaks, and some additions. The second floor loggia at The Breakers is the new venue for the gingerbread mansions, laid out like a village with the gardenscale model of Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad chugging through. The Elms ballroom has been transformed into a Gilded Age streetscape, complete with sleighs, mannequins in vintage clothing, and a topiary horse with attendant footman. And Saint Nick will visit each of the three houses: The Breakers on Dec. 6, Marble House on Dec. 13, and The Elms on Dec. 20. The Breakers will also host a Children’s Night on Tuesday, Dec. 15, complete with Santa and a sing-along.


Top honors in the Marble House mantelpiece competition went to Newport’s Seaside Garden Club. Standing in Alva Vanderbilt’s rococo bedroom are club members Joan Kirwin and Marlen Scalzi. President Anne Collins, not pictured, said it was a true team effort. “Everybody brought their individual talents to this,” she said. (Photos by Jen Carter) Top honors in the Marble House mantelpiece competition went to Newport’s Seaside Garden Club. Standing in Alva Vanderbilt’s rococo bedroom are club members Joan Kirwin and Marlen Scalzi. President Anne Collins, not pictured, said it was a true team effort. “Everybody brought their individual talents to this,” she said. (Photos by Jen Carter) New this year is an inspired touch: a mantelpiece competition that invited eight area garden clubs to bring their deft decorating touch and a sense of the mansion’s place in history to the eight fireplace mantels in the second floor bedrooms and sitting rooms of Marble House.


Second prize went to the Newport Garden Club for their oak leaf motif in Harold’s bedroom. Former club president and current chair of the Newport Flower Show Pat Fernandez, shown here, said they were inspired by the “more organic” qualities of the Vanderbilt oak leaf motif, and the fact that Harold was an avid outdoorsman. (Photos by Jen Carter) Second prize went to the Newport Garden Club for their oak leaf motif in Harold’s bedroom. Former club president and current chair of the Newport Flower Show Pat Fernandez, shown here, said they were inspired by the “more organic” qualities of the Vanderbilt oak leaf motif, and the fact that Harold was an avid outdoorsman. (Photos by Jen Carter) “The museums were built for Christmas,” said Andrea Carneiro, PSNC communications manager. The irony of it all is that the residents of Newport’s Gilded Age cottages “never got to enjoy the sparkle.” The houses were intended for summer living, she explained. “There was never a Christmas celebrated here.”


The Mattapoisett Garden Club received third place for their toy motif in Willie’s bedroom. The toy car was the handicraft of the husband of member Claire Keene. Another member was heard to say that both the project—and the venue—were firsts for her. The Mattapoisett Garden Club received third place for their toy motif in Willie’s bedroom. The toy car was the handicraft of the husband of member Claire Keene. Another member was heard to say that both the project—and the venue—were firsts for her. With every room and every needled bough, from buying ornaments to placing greenery, part of the challenge is to recreate the look of the holidays—not of today, but envisioning the kind of trimmings that would have been used by the families who built the houses.

In other words, no anachronisms allowed.

Jim Donahue’s official title at the PSNC is curator of historic landscapes and gardens. Yet, for the final six weeks of the year, his curator’s hat must share space with the one that also makes him the Preservation Society’s Christmas coordinator. Donahue, along with an ample, able, and agile staff, is one of the key organizers making the holidays at the Preservation Society happen. Following Donahue around Marble House one recent morning (the same day the garden clubs came to decorate), with little time to go before the official Nov. 21 launch, felt somewhat like shadowing Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes at Downton Abbey.

It was Wednesday, Nov. 18. Donahue and his team had three days to go. “Today we finalize Marble House,” he said, standing on the second floor gallery, looking down into the spacious foyer. “On Thursday, we finish up at The Elms,” he added, “and on Friday, The Breakers.”

And then, with the three signature houses bedecked in their holiday finery, it would be time to open the doors and welcome visitors. When asked for an estimated holiday head count, Carneiro said that last year the PSNC logged 103,000 admissions during the six-week period. “While the peak is obviously the summer,” she said, “Christmas is a close second.”

Getting the mansions ready, Donahue explained, takes a month of hard work—and eleven months of “soft.” The first planning meeting for next year has already been scheduled for early January. Another important event on the Christmas timetable is the first week in July, when the minute, myriad poinsettia seedlings settle into the vast greenhouses. When asked about his favorite holiday spot in all the mansions, without hesitation Donahue gestured down the grand staircase and in the direction of the Gothic Room, with its 15-foot tree. In every way, he said, “it lends itself to Christmas.”

First prize for the garden club mantelpiece competition at Marble House went to Newport’s Seaside Garden Club for their work on the mantel in Alva Vanderbilt’s rococo bedroom. Each club was randomly assigned a room (for the five members of the Vanderbilt family as well as a guest bedroom; the very nautical Trophy Room; and a guest sitting room). The Seaside team went to work, did their research, and put together a motif that might have been selected at the time to satisfy the discerning Alva. All of the mantelpieces, from the organic oak-leaf motif in young Harold’s bedroom (Newport Garden Club), to the hand-made toy automobile for the still-life in Willie’s (Mattapoisett Garden Club), are definitely worth a look.

Abby Stewart is the PSNC’s research and interpretation coordinator. Part of her involvement is to plan the children’s activities, including the annual ornament contest, which invites local fourth-grade students to make ornaments for trees in The Elms and invites visitors and families to vote on their favorite tree. The winning school receives support from the PSNC for art supplies. The added plus of the nighttime events, said Stewart, “is seeing the houses decorated for the evening events. It’s one of the few times that people get to see them at night.”

Mansion-watchers might also note that the Rosecliff exhibit, "Newport and her Southern Sisters," will remain open through Jan. 3. For a complete list of holiday activities at the Newport mansions, go to newportmansions.org.

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