The British were hardly the only ones to live on large estates and have servants in the early years of the last century. And because of the enormous popularity of PBS' “Downton Abbey,” mansions in Newport, R.I., have become tourist destinations for people wishing to get a glimpse not only of the lives of the rich but also of the lives of their servants.
Newport is home to several mansions that the American elite would use over their summer vacations during the 19th and 20th centuries, as recalled by the Associated Press. The waterfront resort town was founded in 1639, and it became the summer retreat for the well-heeled beginning in the late 1800s. Families such as the Astors and Vanderbilts had mansions in Newport, and it was a favorite of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
Newport is also mentioned in “Downton Abbey,” as Cora Crawley’s mother, Martha Levinson, has a summer home in the town.
One of Newport's most famous mansions, The Breakers, was ordered to be built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1893. It features 70 rooms in the style of an Italian Renaissance-era palazzo, complete with massive chandeliers, large gardens, a grand stairway, a stable, and a carriage house. The Breakers is designated as a National Historic Landmark. While the mansion has always been a popular tourist attraction, the success of “Downton Abbey” has made Newport and its mansions the place to go to get a glimpse at American opulence.
These large mansions and their grounds needed plenty of maintenance, and, as a result, there were many servants in Newport. Unsurprisingly, these servants had lives of their own, and, as in the case of “Downton Abbey,” they had secrets, scandals, and romances, as noted by AP.
In the wake of “Downton Abbey,” the Preservation Society of Newport County has added a Servant Life Tour of The Elms -- a mansion, or “cottage” as its like was known -- that was begun by the Berwinds in 1898 and cost $1.4 million by the time it was completed in 1901. Adjusting for inflation, the cost of construction of The Elms would have been $38 million last year.
The Servant Life Tour is designed to take a look at the lives of “the butler, Ernest Birch; his wife, cook Grace Rhodes; and one of the maids, Nellie Lynch Regoli.” It features stories about immigration and labor disputes, as well as a walking tour of the back staircases and servants' quarters. Journals, photographs, and other personal effects of the servants are on display in each of the rooms that are a part of the tour. AP reported that relatives of the servants were invited to share stories about life in Newport.
For any “Downton Abbey” fan, a trip overseas is not necessary to experience a similar milieu with Newport right here in the U.S.