When one hears the phrase “the Elms” it is doubtful that they will immediately tag it to the title of one of the most prestigiously fascinating Newport mansions. The Elms is designed to model after an 18thcentury French Chateau. The luxurious halls of this mansion are over abounding with architectural and historical fascinations.
In 1901 the Elms was built for 1.4 million dollars for Mr. Edward Julius Berwind. Today it is valued at over 22 million! In our modern society it is hard to imagine owning a home of such richness and only occupying it for at most twelve weeks per year. The Elms existed as the summer home for the wealthy New York Berwind family. Mr. Berwind’s coal and fuel company was the number one provider for the New York Subway. The Elms was the first Newport home to have complete electricity. The mansion took up to six weeks to remove the winter’s dust in preparation for the summer’s guests. A variety of guests were housed at the Elms each summer. In fact, the Berwind’s spent an average of three hundred thousand dollars each summer on entertaining. Princes, admirals, sportsmen, and celebrities were commonly entertained at the Elms. “The Elms seemed to be run by magic,” says Janet Wisemen, historical preservationist.
On September 7, 1901 E.J. Berwind threw the largest social gathering of the season. He called it “the House Warming Party”. Over four hundred guests attended this ball. Two orchestras played and hundreds of tiny white electrical lights lit the interior and exterior of the Elms. The grand hallways were turned into rose gardens, with vines extending up to the second floor! E.J. Berwind wanted the Elms to appear as a French Fantasy World. He even went as far as having trained monkeys swing from the trees in the Elm’s extensive back yard! Days after the house warming party, escaped monkeys were being found throughout Newport. The Elms “House Warming Party” went down in Newport history as the social climax of 1901.
In August of 1910 the Berwind’s held the famous Naval Ball in honor of Sexton Shroder and George Meyer. The Elms flourished with red, white, and blue flowers. Ships and sailors lined Newport harbor. The Berwind’s Naval Ball is another social festival that set the climax of Newport society’s summer entertainment.
Since entertaining had such emphasis on the life of Newport Society, the ballroom of the Elms was constructed as the center of the mansion. Inside the ballroom each set of doors had four doors. However two of these doors were false door, only depicted on the walls to keep symmetry. The Berwind’s were so particular that they had each doorknob hand crafted in Paris. The American decorator Paul Miller had a passion for Louis the 15th and 16th and therefore the ballroom’s ceiling had a stage setting with thousands of tiny details encrypted in each corner. Each and every marble lain on the floor matched in design with those surrounding it. The Elm’s ballroom is architecturally a symmetrical French amazement.
To the right of the ballroom was Mr. Berwind’s 18th century Drawing Room. The Drawing Room’s purpose was mainly for relaxation. The Art that lined the Drawing Room’s ceiling was by Yakuv Devit. Above the fireplace hung the portrait of the beautiful Elizabeth Drexel Lehr whose husband was the talk of Newport society.
Located to the right of the drawing room was the French inspired Garden Room, decorated by Jewels Allard. Here Ms. Julia Berwind, E.J.’s sister acting as the lady of the house, held daily bridge games (John Church). Inside the Garden Room on either side of the fountain mirrors hung opposite the fourteen-foot windows. The reflection from outside the windows brought the outdoors alive inside the Garden Room. Beneath the Garden Room there was a service tunnel which was used to transport coal to the basement kitchen.
The architecture and design of the Elms has many unique qualities. For example the grand Dinning Room’s ceiling is in fact constructed of plaster, yet designed with such particularity that it appears as carved wood. The Dinning Room was highly appreciated by the Berwind family. There were footmen that pulled out guests’ chairs. Every meal was served promptly, a mixture of grand French cuisine and New England specialties. Every meal had a seating plan and set order of rituals. Each women guest was to talk to the man of her right for fifteen minutes and then the man on her left for fifteen minutes. The men carved the food and had to talk about cultural and intellectual topics. In the Dinning Room no guest was to ever watch the dishes being uncovered, place a knife in their mouth, the hostess must never sign and must smile even if her best crystal was just shattered. Dinner was served promptly at eight o’clock each night.
The Elms Breakfast Room design is a French interpretation of Chinese style. The room is decorated all in gold and black. Breakfast was served generally at nine o’clock a.m. daily. However mornings after balls and other large social functions breakfast was delayed until a more appropriate time.
The Grand Hall of the Elms first floor is decoratively and architecturally stimulating. The hall was lined with all electrical lights, a rarity to Newport in the early 1900s. On either side of the Ballroom’s grand entranceway, paintings were glued to the wall. These paintings depicted the life of Appriconus, a victorious French commander. Mr. Berwind felt that these paintings represented honor, as they were images of an imperial past.
On the Elm’s main floor there were forty-three hired staff members. The staff included Chef Paul Pascal, Butler Ernest Borch, and Maid Elizabeth Briggs who possessed a key for every door, drawer, and hutch in the mansion. The Berwind’s owned the first automobile in Newport; therefore they also had a coachman. There were thirteen staff bedrooms and three bathrooms located on the third floor of the Elms. There was a mezzanine level butler pantry with an open railing to the lower level pantry below. The Lower Level Pantry was from where the servants served the meals. The Upper Level Pantry stored the Berwind’s best china in glass hutches. Also on the upper level there was the safe that held the family’s sterling silver. Only the butler and Mr. Berwind knew the combination to the safe. The kitchen is located below the Lower level Pantry. A dumb waiter runs in the walls from the kitchen and up to the Upper Level Pantry. The dumbwaiter held many purposes. It carried the food from the kitchen to the Lower Level Pantry. It carried the china from the Upper Level Pantry to the lower. After the dishes were cleaned in the kitchen they were carried up to the Upper Level Pantry by the dumbwaiter. The dumbwaiter was a very helpful in making the dinning services run smoothly. It is true that at Berwind functions the chef would have to prepare a seven-course-meal for up to four hundred guests. Each pot held eighty servings. The men were in charge of the cooking and the women did the cleaning. Meals were served promptly at midnight during all formal Balls.
The Architectural design of the Elms was set up very well to accommodate the life style of the Berwind family. The Elms second floor served as the Berwind’s private floor. The second floor walls were covered with precious water silk. The hallway ceiling had skylights, which let natural light shine through the richly decorated halls. However, the skylights did not window with the outdoors. Instead the skylights ran parallel to third floor skylights that did window with the outdoors. This is one of the interesting and rare architectural techniques, which makes the Elms so valuable to historical architecture. On the second floor there were seven bedrooms: Mrs. Berwind’s room, Mr. Berwind’s room, Ms. Julia Berwind’s room, The Rose Room, The Louis the 15th Room, and two guest bedrooms for the Berwind’s nieces.
The Louis the 15th bedroom had an English theme of the Guilded-Age society. It was furnished with 1778 Chippendale wood furniture. The legs on the furniture were straight as of those of Greek and Rome, opposed to the column like ones dating back to the Louis the 16th era found in other rooms of the Elms.
The Rose Room served as Anita Grovner’s bedroom. Anita’s Rose Room was completely furnished in French Décor. Anita was the Grandniece of E.J. Berwind. He loved all four of his nieces as his own daughters, since their Berwind’s had no children of their own. Anita planned many wonderful parties at the Elms. She held much passion for the mansion. The Elms was where her father proposed to her mother during one of the Berwind festivities.
Julia Berwind’s bedroom shared and adjoining bathroom with one of the guest rooms. The Elms bathrooms were one of the first of Newport to have running water. Julia Berwind’s bathroom had a large French tub, tiled floor, and a telephone to monitor all staff calls. The telephones located throughout the mansion were used for in-house phone calls only. In the early 20th century Newport society it was considered disgraceful and intrusive to call someone outside of the house. In order to contact a neighbor the proper way was to mail a letter or visit in person.
Mrs. Berwind’s bedroom was smaller than the other bedrooms because he only stayed at the Elms on the weekends as a result of his national position. Mr. Berwind served as a White House Naval Aid to President Grant. Mr. Berwind’s bathroom had a Valet to draw his bath for him. He also had a Valet to draw his garment from the hand carved sycamore wardrobe that complimented his bedroom’s décor.
The second floor’s Sitting Room served as a private living room for the Berwind family. Its décor complimented the other room’s styles with its Louis the 15th fireplace screen and 19th century furnishings. The Ladies of the Elms would entertain their private guests inside the Sitting Room. Tea was served there daily at five o’clock p.m.
Mrs. Berwind’s room is larger than Mr. Berwind’s was, and actually her bedroom is the largest of the household. The reason for this is that she often entertained women guests inside of her bedroom. Therefore her bedroom almost served as a private sitting room. This is a main reason why Mr. and Mrs. Berwind had separate bedrooms. Since Mrs. Berwind liked to female gusts inside of her bedroom, it would have been quite inconvenient if Mr. Berwind had wanted to change clothes while the women were gathered. Mrs. Berwind’s bathroom was decorated in 18th century French style and consisted of all the amenities that her husband’s bathroom did.
It is an acknowledged fact that in the early 20th century proper Newport society that the lady of a house would have to change her wardrobe four to seven times per day! It was considered disgraceful to attend dinner in the same outfit worn at tea. It is a good thing that both Mrs. Berwind and Julia Berwind had servants to lay out their garments for them since these women had no free time. There were many expectations for the lady of the house. The Lady’s main job was to keep up the social status of the family. Much of a lady’s energy went into planning the fanatical gatherings such as the House Warming Party and Naval Ball mentioned previously. With four hundred guests attending these events, the invitations, meal plan, seating chart, theme, and decorations could get very complicated! Also each week the Lady of the house had to set an entire day aside to receive callers. The many sections of Newport’s women were assigned a specific day of the week when they would receive callers. The other days of the week they were required to call on the other women of Newport. Each caller spent no more than a half-hour at each house. It was considered much better to be missed than to have your welcome warn out. At each one of the callings the visitor would leave an invitation behind for the lady of the house to attend their next calling. It was considered crucial that the lady attends every event that she was invited to. Another pattern of the Elms lifestyle was the consistent flower delivery twice a week to the Lady of the house. Fresh Ferns, Roses, Gardenias, and Carnations flourished the Elms interior and exterior every day of the summer season.
In such a beautiful structure it would be hard to imagine that the Elms could consist of anything not absolutely striking to the eye. Well it does, believe it or not! The basement is very dreary. It has tiled ceilings, tiled walls, and tilde floors. The basement was used as a service entrance for the servants so the plainness is understandable. The kitchen is also located in the basement. The kitchen’s architecture is interesting however. The kitchen is divided into two parts by large sliding windows. There is the “Cold Kitchen” and the “Hot Kitchen”. In the Hot Kitchen the meals are prepared. A large coal stove extends across its back wall. Both the Hot and Cold Kitchens are very large areas, which they would need to be to accommodate adequate working conditions for the forty-three servants.
The find the Elm’s architectural design, interior design, and history behind its prime era absolutely stimulating and inspiring. When I visited the Elm’s, as an architect major I appreciated every breath I took inside of the stunning structure. It is hard to believe that in 1962 the Elms was sold under the intent to be torn down to make room for a proposed shopping center. Three weeks later the Newport Mansions Preservation society saved the Elms from Liquidation at an auction. After learning that a one-hundred-year-old awe to architectural development was almost torn down by modern society to build a mall, I honestly wish I could have lived back in the Berwind’s society, when the beauty of life was genuinely appreciated.