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Rosecliff

Newport, Rhode Island

Completed in 1902, for "Tessie" Theresa Fair (1854-1926), her husband Hermann Oelrichs (1850-1906) and her sister "Birdie" Virginia Fair (1875-1935). Though not on the same scale as The Breakers and others, Rosecliff is widely regarded as one of the most elegant of Newport's Gilded Age Estates and was used to portray Jay Gatsby's mansion in The Great Gatsby (1974). Harry Houdini once entertained guests in the dining room and Louis Armstrong played jazz in the ballroom - the same room that saw Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis dance the tango in the movie True Lies (1994). Today, Rosecliff is maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County and open to the public for tours and events. It is particularly popular as a wedding venue. 
Tessie and Birdie Fair were the daughters of Senator James Graham Fair (1831-1894) and by 1902 they were the sole heiresses to his $40 million fortune. Their father was one of the four Bonanza Kings who made their money in just five years mining Comstock Lode silver in Nevada - the same fortune that funded Harbor Hill among others.

Tessie's husband, Hermann, was a popular figure in New York society, a well-known sportsman - credited for introducing Polo to the U.S. - and an authority on terrapins! His mother was a scion of an old Baltimore family and he was a multi-millionaire in his own right representing his German family's role as agents for the shipping firm Norddeutscher Lloyd that has since become Hapag-Lloyd.

In 1891, the newly-married Oelrichs' purchased Rose Cliff, the former summer home of the noted historian, horticulturalist and statesman George Bancroft (1800-1891), the same man who proposed founding the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Built in 1852, Bancroft's Italianate home was surrounded by "the gardens of a thousands roses" - magnificent rosebushes that he had cultivated in pursuit of achieving the perfect American Beauty rose, hence the name of his house set back from the cliffs. The Oelrichs knocked the old house down and increased the estate to 13 acres along Bellevue Avenue.

The lead architect of their new home was Stanford White (1853-1906), of the firm McKim, Mead & White; and, it was to be his last major project in Newport. By 1897, it had been agreed that he would model (not copy) their home on the early 18th century Grand Trianon at the Ch√Ęteau de Versailles. Work got underway on their 40-room, H-shaped mansion in 1899 and it was finally completed three years later at a cost of $2.5 million.

Honoring Bancroft, the Oelrichs' maintained the estate's original name, adapting it to Rosecliff. It was built of brick and the elaborately decorated exterior was faced with terra cotta coated in glazed, white paint. This was designed to appear at it's best in bright sunshine, prompting the local press to describe it like "the surface of a teacup". 

Though Rosecliff appears to be of only two-storys, there were in fact four floors within the mansion (that included the basement and one within the balustraded roof) and it's principal interior architectural feature is the magnificent heart-shaped double staircase in the marble entrance hall.

Unlike many with pockets as deep as hers, Tessie was mindful that the mansion was just a summer house and though she wanted something that gave a grand impression, she didn't want to spend any more on it than she had to. The materials used were not the highest quality and many of the furnishings and trimmings within were not from 18th century France but in fact very high standard reproductions, finished by Jules Allard of Paris.

Tessie preferred parties to objects and this was nowhere better expressed than in her white and gold Louis XVI ballroom, said to be the largest in Newport at 40 by 80 feet, and similar to that at The Elms. In 1900, so eager was Tessie to entertain - and not not to be outdone by the end of season ball being held at Crossways - that a whole two years before the house was complete she shooed the workmen out and, covering the incomplete sections with palms and ferns, held a dinner party for 112 guests.

One of Tessie's most memorable and truly Gatsby-esque parties held at Rosecliff was the "White Ball" for the Astor Cup Race in 1904. Guests - some with white powdered hair - and servants alike wore nothing but white; the house was bedecked in white with flowers that included white hydrangeas, roses, orchids, and lilies; white swans swam in the fountain; and, a number of small, white candle-lit boats were built specifically to be placed in the sea, giving the illusion of a far-off flotilla. As the guests arrived they were given gifts at the door: For the ladies, lace fichus from Paris with a Marie-Antoinette design and wreaths of Lilies of the Valley and white roses. For the men, English briar pipes in white cases, white-enamelled silver table ornaments and silver smoking sets, also from Paris. The dance started at 10pm and continued until early morning.

But, as Tessie actively threw herself into the social whirlpool of Newport society, her husband retreated both from it and her. By the time of his death in 1906, he had effectively abandoned her (she was left nothing in his will) and passed his final years predominantly between San Francisco and Baltimore. Towards the end of her own life, Tessie spent increasingly more time at Newport. She ran a tight ship and was obsessed with cleanliness, inspecting the entire property (including the garage and stables), starting at 9am every morning; and, even mopping the marble floors herself if she felt so compelled.

According to the New York Social Diary, she "lost her mind in old age, and.. spent her days wandering about her mansion, lost in a haze of memories, greeting and seating her imagined (but non-existent) guests". Tessie died at Rosecliff in 1926.

Rosecliff passed to her son, Hermann Oelrichs, Jr. (1894-1948), who summered there with his "clever and beautiful" wife, Dorothy Haydel (1893-1961) - afterwards styled Princess Dorothy of Liechtenstein by virtue of her second marriage to Ferdinand (1901-1981), Prince of Liechtenstein. 

In 1941, Hermann and Dorothy sold Rosecliff and auctioned off the majority of it's furnishings for what combined to $65,000. It's new owner was the popular actress and musical entertainer Gertrude Niesen (1911-1975) whose mother paid $21,000 for it on her behalf. Gertie was a shrewd customer and on purchasing Rosecliff she managed to lease it out at $7,000 a week for three weeks to a company who were making a film on Tessie's father.

After the film crew left, Gertie redecorated and refurbished Rosecliff on a grand scale. But, neglecting to hire a caretaker for the winter, tragedy struck when the pipes burst, "transforming Rosecliff into an ice palace". In 1942, she sold her sodden mansion for $30,000 to Ray Alan Van Clief (1892-1945) and his wife Margaret Good (1903-1948). Almost immediately afterwards, they acquired the neighbouring estate, By-the-Sea, and after three years of work they managed to restore Rosecliff, whose name they changed to Oldcourt. But, as Van Clief drove to meet his wife for their first dinner in the newly redone mansion, he was killed in a car accident.

In 1946, Mrs Van Clief demolished By-the-Sea and blended it's gardens with those at 'Oldcourt'. The following year, she sold the mansion with it's increased acreage to self-made multi-millionaire J. Edgar Monroe (1897-1991) who immediately gave it back it's old name, Rosecliff. His wife, Louise (1898-1989), spent a month at The Plaza Hotel in New York carefully selecting the staff she would hire to re-open the mansion in grand style.

Monroe and his wife were from New Orleans, and it was said that the parties they held eclipsed even those held by Tessie during the height of the Gilded Age; and without the strict etiquette maintained during those years. They shocked their neighbours with their annual Mardi Gras celebrations, when guests turned up in bright satin costumes with sequins and feathers.

In 1971, the Monroes donated Rosecliff along with its contents to the Preservation Society of Newport County. They also sold off twelve of the fourteen acres that had once made up the gardens of By-the-Sea. This sale raised $2 million, the proceeds of which are used to maintain Rosecliff while the land has since been subdivided and developed. Rosecliff was opened to the public for tours from 1976, when the Monroes vacated the house. They still continued to visit for charity events until their deaths.

The Monroes allowed their summer home to be used for several movies, including High Society (1956) and The Betsy (1978). Most famously, in 1973 Monroe allowed Rosecliff to be used to portray Jay Gatsby's mansion in the classic movie, The Great Gatsby (1974) - Baz Luhrman's more recent remake of the same film used a computer-enhanced version of Beacon Towers. However, Monroe was furious with the director, Clayton, who had waited for him to go bed before filming the party scene, when he encouraged 'guests' to frolic in the fountain - the one thing that Monroe had forbade him to do. It was trashed again, after he had just spent $50,000 on it.

Since then, the magnificent ballroom has featured in the movies True Lies (1994) and Amistad (1997); and the house appeared in Heaven's Gate (1980) and 27 Dresses (2008). Today, it is also used for The Nutcracker produced by the Island Moving Company, and as a venue for The Newport Flower Show.