May 272013
Does this mansion make you jump for joy or punch a wall?

Does this mansion make you want to jump for joy or punch a wall?

How should the super-rich use their money? Touring the famous mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, recently, half of me screamed, “You people spent your money on THIS?! Think of the world problems you could have solved with all that loot!” But my other half shyly whispered, “Sure, but it’s awesome that this sight exists. My eyes are happy!”

The "welcoming" front gate of Marble House mansion.

The imposing front gate of Marble House mansion.

Tourists aren’t allowed to take photos inside the Newport mansions, but the innards are a million times more shocking than the exteriors. Curlicues of real gold swirl around imported marble, silver, gems, and precious wood in every corner of the rooms. Think Great Gatsby times fifty. So… was it worth it?

Would YOU live in this mansion? Should it even have been built?

Would YOU live in this mansion? Should it even have been built?

In terms of tourism, I’m sure Rhode Island is thrilled about this financial allocation. The Cliff Walk of Newport between the mansions and the ocean is one of Rhode Island’s most beloved attractions, and brings visitors from around the world. Heck– I’ve done the walk more times than I have fingers, and each time it makes me as happy as a pregnant woman finishing her annoying first trimester!

I'm not sure this Newport mansion back yard is big enough.

I’m not sure this Newport mansion back yard is big enough.

I might add that the super-rich Newport mansion families like the Vanderbilts did also donate a good deal of their wealth to positive community causes that we still benefit from today, such as Grand Central Station in New York City, and women’s voting rights. Does philanthropy like that give the super-rich license to blow the rest of their fortune on overt luxury beyond belief?

The spectacular Cliff Walk view behind each Newport mansion.

The spectacular Cliff Walk view behind each Newport mansion.

In fact, these unbelievable demonstrations of wealth expand a visitor’s view of what is possible for humanity. Yes, it IS possible to create a house with 75 rooms that you only live in for two months of the year. Yes, it IS possible to make an entire house out of marble. Yes, it IS possible to re-create a Chinese tea house on the side of an American cliff. Exhilarating!

Colin behind the famed Breakers mansion.

Colin looking manly behind the famed Breakers mansion.

I had similar ethical questions several years ago when I reviewed several of Spain’s 5-star hotels after three months of living in a poor town in Ghana, West Africa. Maybe you won’t go so far as condoning mansion building, but how do you feel about people who can afford to, and do, pay $1,000 a night for a hotel room? Should such lavish hotels even exist?

Graffiti on a tunnel in the Cliff Walk behind the mansions. Is Love life, or is Money?

Graffiti on a tunnel in the Cliff Walk behind the mansions. Is Love life, or is Money?

At the end of the day, methinks these gorgeous and crazy displays of wealth are going to happen, whether they are logical, ethical, good, or not. They cause too much titillation to ever be seriously limited: titillation of the eyes and that thrill of the spirit that asks, “Might I ever be rich enough to indulge in something like this, too? Maybe!” The side philanthropic pursuits also add enough benefit to society to keep the masses from rebelling against the screaming luxury.

How do YOU think the super-rich should use their money?

How do YOU think the super-rich should use their money?

So what are YOUR thoughts, readers? Should shockingly grand mansions like these in Newport even have been built? Have you enjoyed or been repulsed by such grand architecture, be it in the form of palaces or luxury hotels? Do share!

A warning sign on the Cliff Walk behind the mansions. When do we fall off the cliff of lavishness?

A warning sign on the Cliff Walk behind the mansions. When do we fall off the cliff of lavishness?

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  25 Responses to “Mansions of Newport, Rhode Island: Great or Upsetting?”

  1. If those build legacies like that then I guess they need the estates to go with it:)

  2. Ooooohhhh, I’m going to be there in one week! I was there almost 20 years ago, I studied in Providence, and love love love Newport. But am now returning with my family.

    We are only doing the Breakers, I think one mansion is enough. So looking forward to it. Love the pictures!!!! Especially the cliff walk, which we’ll tackle only a tiny portion of.

    • Have a fantastic time! The mansions are such sensory overload that seeing just one should be fine. We liked seeing one on the first day and another on the second.

  3. Newport is one of my favorite places! This is an interesting take on the mansions. I’m glad that they were built — if the rich didn’t do things like build manions, who would? I like having beautiful things to look at. And I certainly don’t want to have to rely on institutions to do it. I’m glad when individuals do it privately too. The more beauty in the world, the better!

  4. I agree they are eye candy. The problems with money, consumption, and avoiding taxes are pretty much the same today as when they were built. ( how about that 1%) Still, I agree with the others who have commented, how you chose to spend your money is your business. Great story!

    • Looking at the shot of the backyard, is it too big, I envisioned my 3-year old grandson driving his battery operated quad around it. (You know, like the Barbie corvette only made for tough guys) I’d say it was just perfect.

    • Hah 🙂

  5. I agree with Larissa. It’s their money, and they can do whatever they choose with it. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do with my hard earned cash, and likewise, I would not think to tell anyone what to do with theirs. There is always going to be disparity in this world. Money doesn’t solve all of our problems. In fact, it’s the bane of some of the worst problems. At least these homes attract some tourist to the area who put money into the local economy. It’s all about the circle of things.

  6. I’m very much of the opinion that people can spend their own money on whatever they want.

    There many lavish buildings all over the world built for a variety of reasons. The ones that allow public access provide jobs and income. These buildings are part of our culture and history and I think its great we have access to places like this.

  7. It’s a dilemma for sure. I guess they are the modern equivalents of all the grand old buildings and ruins whose architecture we admire so much throughout the world. We find them vulgar (yet beautiful) because they are modern.

  8. Your post makes me think about the USA tax code and how the owners of these properties pay a smaller percentage to taxes than teachers. All of a sudden a consumption tax starts making a lot of sense. For me, this is one tourist area that I would probably skip.

  9. Love the Gatsby reference, obviously!

  10. Although the US does not have royalty, this is our equivalent to touring palaces in other countries. I do agree that much of that profligate spending is just plain silly, but at least here the people with money created their own wealth. (Granted, many of them might not have been saints, or even nice guys). These palaces of grandeur weren’t built at the expense of the citizens of a given country.

    I’d like to think that if I had that amount of money I’d use a lot of it for “the greater good”, but if someone earned it, aren’t they entitled to a few “fripperies”? (Admittedly, my “treats” would not involve a dining room just for little dogs!)

  11. If I had that kind of money, no one would tell me how to spend it. Who’s to say these rich don’t support others as well as themselves. Tracy put it well! I don’t find them an eyesore; in fact, my favorite is the last one above the caution sign.

  12. Check out the Biltmore house in Asheville NC. With an indoor pool and bowling alley, you’ll possibly be sick with envy or disgust. But it is pretty in Christmas!!

    • What, no movie theatre, no MacDonald’s? I’ve seen Richie Rich! Honestly, I’d have these things so I could turn my friends on to them and let them enjoy. Can you imagine kids reactions to having your own MacDonald’s? It’d be awesome. How about pausing a movie on the big screen? These things are fun.

  13. While I understand where the ‘torn-ness’ is coming from (for lack of a much better word) the world doesn’t work the way it should; it’s not a balance. So these mansions being built really did not take the food out of the mouths of hungry children.

    In fact, the building and maintaining of these homes (and the resulting tourism they created) does fuel the economy. Someone had to built them. Someone had to quarry the stone. Someone had to dust all 75 of those rooms.

    We live in a free society; thus, people can (and do) spend their money as they wish. Does it kill me to see people throwing thousands of dollars at expensive TVs and sound systems, fancy cars that get crappy mileage and giant McMansion homes while also complaining that ‘they wished they had the money to travel’? Yes. But that’s their choice. I can only control how I spend my own money (and even then, barely! Ha!)

  14. I guess I love the fact that so many talented people had the chance to create something for all of us to see in their craftsmanship. I also feel that if I work hard for my money should be able to spend it how I choose. After all, I am sure many of the people who designed all those wonders were paid well, and it may have even helped a family survive back then. When money is no object, often price does not matter.

    • You make a good point. Many artists have had the chance to show their talents because of wealthy patrons.

  15. Thanks so much for this article, Lillie; very thought provoking.

    I think about this often as we travel around the world. Often, even the basic places we stay in seem so wealthy in comparison to what others have. I remember being in the Philippines (not a particularly poor country, even), and staying in a hotel where workers were building a new wing. We were paying around $90 USD a night, and I later found out from the hotel’s owner that the construction workers were earning about $200 USD a month. A month!

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