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Miramar

Newport, Rhode Island

Completed in 1914, for Mrs Eleanor (Elkins) Widener (1861-1937) and her husband, George Dunton Widener Sr. (1861-1912) who lost his life on the Titanic prior to its completion. Neighbouring Clarendon Court, Miramar is one of the finest examples of traditional French neo-classicism in Newport. At 30,982 square feet, it's the 4th largest of the Newport Cottages, behind The Breakers, Ochre Court and The Elms. Today, it remains a private residence and is currently on the market for $25 million...
The Widener's were one of America's wealthiest couples and lived at Lynnewood Hall near Philadelphia. In 1911, George purchased a 7.8-acre property overlooking Rhode Island Sound at Newport and commissioned his family's preferred architect, Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938), to build them a summer residence there. Both George and Eleanor shared a particular interest in French architecture, art and furniture; and, in consideration of the design and furnishings for their new mansion they took a two month trip to Paris.

In the spring of 1912, they departed for Europe accompanied by their valet, lady's maid and eldest son, Harry Elkins Widener (1885-1912) who wished to add to his rare book collection in London. Making sure they were back in good time for their only daughter's (Eleanor's) wedding - for which a lavish affair was planned at Lynnewood - they booked rooms on the ill-fated Titanic. After the iceberg struck, the three men put Eleanor and her lady's maid safely into a lifeboat. George, Harry and their valet stayed on board and went down with the ship. Distraught, Mrs Widener was nonetheless determined to see her husband's plans through and work began on their summer mansion in 1913.

The Summer Chateau

Built of limestone, Trumbauer modelled the 30,982 square foot, neoclassical mansion on an 18th century French château. Eleanor named the house Miramar, which is Spanish for "look to the sea," in reference to its view over Rhode Island Sound. From the interior, floor-to-ceiling French windows open up on each side of the house to the balustraded terrace that surrounds it entirely, loosely inspired by Le Petit Palais in Paris.

In keeping with its French theme, the formal rose gardens were laid out by the young French landscape designer, Jacques-Henri-Auguste Gréber (1882-1962), who had recently completed the gardens at Lynnewood Hall. Set within them, was a bronze fountain sculpted by Gréber's well-known father. The property included several outbuildings, such as the 6,000 square foot carriage house, a garage (rumor has it that they kept 16 Rolls-Royces), greenhouses, an ice house, gardener's cottage and gate lodge. In 2012, a former footman at Miramar related his memories of working there to The New York Times:
At Miramar, Mr. Silvia was in charge of the 42 awnings. “They hated a dark house, but had beautiful tapestries,” he remembered. “I had to sit in the front hall, and watch the sun, and when it shifted I had to race, race, to lower the awnings, and then put the others up.” Most of the time the male staff wore black pants with a tan linen jacket with the family crest on the buttons.
The mansion contained 27 bedrooms, 14 bathrooms and was designed to entertain up to 700 people at one time with a dining room that comfortably sat 50 guests. The wine cellar has the capacity to hold 10,000 bottles and down the middle it incorporates a 20-foot long trough to keep 200 bottles of champagne iced at any time. The interior was designed by the the Parisian firm of Carlhian, and the furnishings were acquired by the influential British art-dealer, Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), 1st Baron Duveen.

The 27 by 63 foot Louis XVI drawing room-cum-ballroom opens directly on to an ocean view and was designed after one of the state rooms at the Château de Louveciennes near Paris. A late 17th century pine-panelled room salvaged from Hamilton Palace was intended for Miramar, but though transported there, it never made it out of storage. Among the many treasures that adorned the mansion were a pair of Louis XV Ormolu-mounted Chinese porcelain vases that in 2006 were sold at Christies for $102,000.

Eleanor, "Ham" & Pitchers of Champagne

In 1915, at the opening of the library dedicated to her son at Harvard, Eleanor met Alexander Hamilton Rice, Jr. (1875-1956), known as "Ham" the enigmatic explorer and Harvard's Professor of Geography. Lovestruck, they were married that same year and in August they gave a ball officially opening Miramar to Newport society. The trees on the property that night were lit up and three orchestras played for the 500 guests who danced in the ballroom and on the terrace overlooking the ocean. 

At Newport, the Rices developed quite a reputation for the lavish parties they hosted and their annual ball during Tennis Week was one of the highlights of the social season. It was also the Rices who in the 1930s were the first to serve champagne in pitchers, in what became known as "the English style".

Ham was an inveterate traveller and he and Eleanor frequently took to touring far flung corners of the world. She even joined her husband on several of his explorations into the Amazonian rainforest, but each summer they were always back to hold open house at Newport. If guests were interested by their host's recent forays, they were invited to the library where Ham kept his collection of 10,000 books on foreign travel and exploration.

The Miramar School

On Eleanor's death in 1937, she left Miramar to her husband for his lifetime (he died in 1956) after which it passed to her two surviving children by her first marriage, George Dunton Widener, Jr. (1889-1971) and Eleanor Elkins Widener (1891-1966). Eleanor's children were by then living respectively at Erdenheim Farm and Homewood. In 1956, they sold the estate and it briefly became a private school known as "Miramar School".

Return to Luxury

In 1971, Miramar returned to being a private residence on being purchased for a mere $118,000 by Andrew Panteleakis (1927-2013) who also used the house as the headquarters for his land developing business. In 2006, he sold the estate at auction and made a tidy profit for himself on accepting an offer of $17.1 million. At the time, this was the highest price ever realised for a private residence in the State of Rhode Island, a record that was only recently broken by Taylor Swift with her home on Bluff Avenue.

The new owner was identified as David B. Ford, who lived there with his fiancée, Pamela Fielder. Formerly a banker with Goldman Sachs, Ford is Chairman of the National Audubon Society and a director of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association. A committed preservationist, he renovated Miramar to its former glory with the help of John Tschirch who works with the Preservation Society of Newport as their architectural historian. Fully renovated, Miramar is currently back on the market for $25 million.