A Former Vanderbilt Mansion Is Now Downtown Newport's Most Luxurious Hotel

·3 min read
Photo credit: Dylan Coulter/Auberge Resorts Collection
Photo credit: Dylan Coulter/Auberge Resorts Collection

It will take a lot more than the recent influx of nouveau riche robber barons for Newport to ever outgrow its centuries-old association with the Gilded Age, and with one legendary family in particular: the Vanderbilts. Not only did the descendants of "Commodore" Cornelius have the good sense to build spectacular summertime mansions hugging the cliffs of this seaside idyll, but they were also smart to leave the best of these grand edifices to historical preservation societies and public institutions.

Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images

The most renowned, obviously, is the 70-room Breakers, built between 1893 and 1895 by the supposed favorite of the Commodore's grandchildren: Cornelius II. His incredibly ornate and sprawling Renaissance Revival-style palace-turned-museum still holds court as one of the town's crown jewels, as does Marble House a few doors down, which was completed in 1892 for his brother William Kissam. That same year, Rough Point was finished for their younger brother Frederick William (though it is now most famously associated with Doris Duke, who inherited the estate from her father in 1925 and retreated there until her death in 1993). Even their sister Florence Adele soon became a neighbor, when she bought Vinland from a tobacco heiress in 1896.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

In 1908, Cornelius II's third son Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt followed suit to build something of his own in Newport proper (he and his wife Elsie French lived at Oakland Farm, in nearby Portsmouth), though his would be a touch more modest than dad's. And rather than face the Atlantic Ocean like all the rest of his family's real estate, it would be in the heart of downtown, with views looking out to Newport Harbor. But by the time the stately Georgian-style residence was completed a year later, Alfred had donated it to the city, and in October 1909, it opened as a YMCA and remained the organization's home for 65 years.

Why he never moved in remains a mystery, though a brief survey of his biography offers some clues. In 1908, Elsie, fed up with her husband's not-so-secret affair with Agnes O'Brien Ruíz, the wife of the Cuban attaché in D.C., filed for divorce and moved out of Oakland Farm. A media firestorm ensued, causing such distress that Agnes died by suicide in 1909—according to some reports, Alfred had commissioned the home for his mistress, and when she died he gave it to the people. (He eventually remarried but died in 1915 aboard the RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat.)

Photo credit: Auberge Resorts Collection
Photo credit: Auberge Resorts Collection

It wasn't until the late '90s that the mansion began its life as a hotel. Now, the Vanderbilt, Auberge Resorts Collection, has just debuted a top-to-bottom transformation with Dallas-based design collective SWOON, the first since the luxury hotel group purchased the property in 2018. "Honoring the Vanderbilt’s original Georgian architecture in addition to the simplicity and honesty of its American colonial design was our starting point," says general manager Jordi Valles.

Cozy nooks, plush custom upholstery, a mix of artsy and vintage pieces, and a rich palette of emerald, dark teal, and navy evoke the old money charms of the Gilded Age, while also layering in a modern eclecticism. Other luxuries also firmly root the 33-key Vanderbilt in the 21st century: a spa, fitness center, indoor and outdoor pools, a roof deck, and a signature restaurant menu revamped by celebrated chef April Bloomfield.

"This was an opportunity to reimagine an already beloved Newport mainstay and not only honor its rich history but reinvent it," Valles says. "We were inspired by the insatiable wanderlust and rebellious spirit of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt."

Photo credit: Auberge Resorts Collection
Photo credit: Auberge Resorts Collection

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