The Elms

367 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, Rhode Island

Completed in 1901, for Edward Julius Berwind (1848-1936) and his wife Sarah Vesta Herminie Torrey (1856-1922). This unashamedly opulent mansion is an enlarged copy of a French chateau built in 1752. At 31,401 square feet, it is the 19th largest historic house in the United States and the 3rd largest of Newport's "cottages" behind The Breakers and Ochre Court and slightly ahead of Miramar. Since 1962, The Elms has been operated as a house-museum by the Preservation Society of Newport County and it remains one of Newport's most popular tourist destinations....

This house is best associated with...

Edward Julius Berwind

Edward J. Berwind, President of the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company

1848-1936

Sarah Vesta Herminie Torrey

Mrs "Herminie" (Torrey) Berwind

1856-1922

Julia A. Berwind

Miss Julia A. Berwind, Society Hostess, died unmarried

1865-1961

Edward Berwind, one of three co-founders of the Berwind Corporation, was the son of a German guitar-maker. At his death, he was voted among the 30 most powerful men in the United States, counting President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941), of Germany among his personal friends and leaving behind him a fortune of $34 million. According to the Harvard Business School, in his time he, "was reputed to be the world’s largest individual owner of coal mining properties" and he expanded his operations by working closely alongside John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913).

Mrs Herminie Berwind was born at Livorno in Tuscany, Italy. Her father, Franklin, was a celebrated sculptor and a junior partner in the firm of Bowker, Torrey & Co., of Boston, Mass., which from the 1850s was recognized as owning the largest marble works in the United States, shipping marble from their quarry at Cararra in Italy. Franklin became the American Consul at Florence and was "the moving spirit" behind the construction of St. James' Episcopal Church in Florence. The Berwinds were frequent guests. As Edward's family background was musical, Sarah's was artistic and together they shared a passion for the arts. Not having children, they dedicated their home life to culture and taste.

Herminie's family had long summered at Newport and the resort's exclusivity appealed to both her and Edward. In 1888, they paid $50,000 for an Italianate-style house on Bellevue Avenue named "The Elms" which had been the summer home of George W. Merritt.

From 1890, Berwind spent something in the region of $100,000 buying up land from his neighbours - Elisha Dyer IV (1862-1917) of Wayside among them - so that by 1915 his summer estate encompassed 14-acres. In 1899, he demolished Merritt's original wooden house and commissioned Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938) to build him a new mansion in its place; something as Berwind put it, "very French". In keeping with this request, Trumbauer brought in Jules Allard & Sons of Paris to design and furnish the interior.

A "Very French" Chateau

The main house and garden façade is an enlarged copy of the Château d'Asnières, north west of Paris. The château was well-known to the Berwinds as they had considered buying it in 1898. But, instead they chose just to purchase its sculptures and statues, along with others from the historic Château de Menars, that Trumbauer skilfully integrated into the garden façade at The Elms. Another clever twist was that the design of the mansion's street façade was an elaborated copy of the Maison d'Argenson which was the townhouse in Paris of the same family who built the Château d'Asnières.

Built of white limestone measuring 120-feet by 60-feet with 50 rooms standing over three stories, The Elms took two years to complete at a cost of $1.4 million when the average day rate for a skilled labourer was just $3. It is approached by three entrance gates, which was unusual for the time but a feature the Berwinds had admired at Buckingham Palace and so was incorporated into their new home. From the outside, the mansion appears to be just two stories high, but a third is hidden behind the parapets that line the roof. 

In keeping with the exterior, The Elms' opulent interior was designed throughout in the styles of Louis XIV and XV. Entered via great mahogany doors, the marble entrance hall forms one vast gallery that runs along the entire length of the house from north to south. From this grandest of marble columned corridors, doors lead to all the principal reception rooms and at its center the marble double staircase with wrought iron bannister curves up 41-feet to the second floor bedrooms - also accessible via an octagonal panelled elevator topped by a frosted skylight.

The 50 by 45 foot Rococo ballroom is similar to that at Rosecliff; with carved wood painted in cream and white it is considered to be one of the finest in Newport. The dining room of carved walnut and oak with Venetian murals is lit by 4 chandeliers and the antique fireplace's mantel of green marble, onyx and bronze nearly reaches the ceiling. Other principal rooms include the library (with another floor-to-ceiling mantel), drawing room, palm court and the breakfast room with black and gold Chinese lacquer panels.

Gardens & Grounds

The 14-acres of French/Italian landscaped gardens are among the most spectacular in Newport. Trumbauer was helped in their design by Ernest William Bowditch (1850-1918), known for his work at The Breakers, Wakehurst and Vinland etc., the artist Charles Henry Miller (1842-1922), and the head gardener, Bruce Butterton.

Incorporating a sunken garden, the grounds were defined by numerous split level terraces, gravel walkways, balustrades, boxwood hedges, sweeping lawns, sculptured fountains, statues, busts and two octagonal gazebos with domed roofs serving as teahouses. The original carriage house and stables were replaced in 1910 by an enormous two story garage - the largest of its kind in the country with an indoor track and two gas tanks!

As the years rolled by, so did the dawn of the automobile and the Berwind's head coachman soon became their head chauffeur. But, for all his skill as a horseman, he was never able to master the art of reversing cars. After one ding too many, the Berwinds were kind enough to build him a mechanized turntable!

Entertaining, with monkeys!

The opening of the house in 1902 was celebrated with a large party. Roses adorned every corner of the mansion's interior with vines reaching up to the second floor. Lights of every description were spread throughout the estate, but the highlight for the 400 guests in attendance that night were the monkeys brought in to play in the palm trees - many of which were still found swinging in the trees around Newport for days afterwards! Two orchestras provided music in the ballroom and the Newport Band played in the grounds.

Berwind was President of the Newport Country Club and each season he spent $300,000 on entertaining at The Elms. Needless to say, he and his wife gained a reputation for hosting among the most lavish parties - no mean feat at the height of the Gilded Age!

The Last Butler Standing

Mrs Berwind died in 1922 and Edward asked his unmarried sister, Julia A. Berwind (1864-1961), to move in with him and take up the role of hostess. When Edward died in 1936, having no children of his own, he left the mansion and its contents to Julia who was said to have enjoyed the house probably more than anyone else. She passed her winters at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in New York, but every summer returned to hold court at The Elms.

Up until Julia's death in 1961, the house was run in the same way as it always had been since she first came there in 1922: instructing her army of servants every morning from the call-box system in her sleeping quarters! Come evening time in her twilight years, she loved to play Bridge, and when a fourth player could not be found, her butler would stand in - literally, 'stand' in: being the butler, it would be bad form to sit with those he served so Julia would have him remain standing throughout the game! As one of the last great châtelaines of Newport, Julia is remembered being driven around in one her many chauffeured cars and for inviting poor children to the mansion for milk & cookies.

Surviving Demolition, becoming a House Museum

Julia died in 1961 and left The Elms to her sister's son, Charles E. Dunlap (1888-1966). Aware that he would be unable to maintain such a mansion and having little attachment to the place, Dunlap promptly sold it to a syndicate of developers from New York who intended on replacing it with a shopping center. An auction was held soon afterwards and its furnishings were sold with several of the more valuable paintings going to the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fortunately, in 1962 the stock market took a tumble which enabled the Preservation Society of Newport County to prize The Elms back from the jaws of destruction for a mere $75,000. Within weeks, the house was scrubbed up ready for a gala ball given for 800 people to celebrate its survival. In 1971, The Elms was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 1996 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. From 1962, the Society opened its doors to the public as a house-museum, as it remains today - one of the most popular in Newport.

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