In addition to leaving behind legacies in industry and commerce, oil tycoons, beer barons and society families often left their marks in the form of extravagant mansions and sprawling estates, formal gardens and opulent furnishings. The following cities are known for their historic homes, some of which open their doors to visitors who want to glimpse the glamour inside and hear the stories the walls have to tell.
Newport, Rhode Island
Many East Coast society families built their “summer cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island, around the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the height of the Gilded Age. But “cottages” is a bit of an understatement for the rambling oceanfront estates of the rich and famous.
As the largest and the grandest of Newport’s cottages, the Breakers is “the most legendary,” said Andrea McHugh, marketing communications manager for Discover Newport. Cornelius Vanderbilt II had the 70-room Italian Renaissance mansion built between 1893 and 1895, and the massive acreage on the edge of the sea features Frederick Olmsted-designed gardens.
“If people do one mansion here, that’s the grand dame,” McHugh said.
Marble House is another Vanderbilt estate popular with visitors; the 50-room mansion was a gift to Alva Vanderbilt for her 39th birthday. And the Elms mansion, a 1901 French Chateau-style manor, offers a servants’-life tour that shows visitors the other side of the story: the kitchen, servants’ quarters, back staircases and other behind-the-scenes touches.
Rough Point was commissioned in 1887 for one of William Vanderbilt’s sons and eventually came into the hands of art collector and philanthropist Doris Duke. Duke asked that the English Manor-style home be opened to the public after her death, and tours showcase her personality and her personal art collection.
The entire city of Savannah, Georgia, pays homage to its long history, but about 10 of the 1,200 historically significant homes in its historic district allow guests to peek behind their facades.
Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scout movement in the United States, and the 1821 Federal-style home where she was born is today known as the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace. In addition to serving as a Girl Scout museum and a mecca for visiting troops, the home displays Low’s original artwork and family furnishings, said Mindy Shea, director of tour and travel sales for Visit Savannah.
Charles Green built his Gothic Revival-style home in the 1850s and, in an effort to save it from destruction during the Civil War, offered it for Union General William Sherman’s use in 1864. Green’s plan worked, and today, the Green-Meldrim House still features its original intricate ironwork, black walnut woodwork and curved staircase. The 1819 Owens-Thomas House houses art and furnishings dating to the late 1700s, and a large urban slave quarters is also open for tours, Shea said.
Another popular stop for groups is the Mercer-Williams House of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” fame. The house was the home of Jim Williams, an art and antiques dealer who was infamously tried for murder four times — and finally found not guilty — in the shooting death of his assistant at the home. The story became the subject of a novel and a movie, but the home is also popular for Williams’ extensive collection of art and furnishings, Shea said.