Newport and the contradictions of obscene wealth

My wife and I recently spent a few days in nearby Newport RI. I recommend it as a pleasant way to remind ourselves of the contradictions of great wealth.

We walked again the wonderful Cliff Walk along the east side of Aquidneck Island with its view to the rockbound shore and limpid waters of the Atlantic on one side, the famous Gilded Age trophy houses on the other.

Big money doesn’t have a very good reputation with most of us. Lucre is filthy. Much of the gain, then, and now, is “ill-gotten,” some of its most successful accumulators called robber barons. The greatest wealth is “obscene.”

But it’s not just the accumulating of great wealth that is suspect. What the very wealthy do with it is just as bad. Leaving a million bucks to a pet toy dog. Blowing thousands on a bottle of wine which no taste test proves tastes any better than a 15 dollar bottle. Keeping a three-quarter billion dollar trophy yacht the size of a cruise ship (not to mention fulltime crew) for the occasional outing.

Such spending seems criminal itself, in the sense of monumentally bad taste.

Trophy houses are so named because no matter how talented the architect it is the architecture of ostentation. It’s a poorly defined line between grand and grandiose.

Which consideration brings us back to one of the most famous features of Newport, its great mansions. On a fine October day we walked the Cliff Walk down to a tour of Marble House. I felt gratitude for whatever it was in Newport history that had wrested this marginal strip from the huge lawns rolling down to the water’s edge.

Built in the 1890s as a birthday present for a Vanderbilt’s wife, Marble House is clad in 500,000 cubic feet of marble. It cost the equivalent of $317 million.

It’s a strangely contradictory experience to take this tour. On the one hand, though not as big as The Breakers, that other Vanderbilt cottage (the word the owners apparently used, with let-them-eat-cake insensitivity), the house is certainly impressive, the marble cladding, the high ceilings, the grand front hall, many large gilt-framed portraits, tapestries. Attention and money lavished on every square inch. Surely deserving of the word “beautiful.”

On the other hand. Who would want to dine, on however important an occasion, at a 40 foot long table, sitting in 75 pound gold chairs, under a ceiling painting 20 feet overhead of classical subject matter that can only be seen by craning the neck? Did servants have to bodily maneuver guests into those chairs?

The audio tour said that the Gilded Room, where marble is replaced (or covered over?) by gold leaf, was the venue for a fabulous 300 guest grand ball where they danced all night. But what else was it used for?

It was hard to imagine actually falling asleep in the throne-like bed of the daughter’s huge, ornament-encrusted bedroom. Poor little girl, one couldn’t help feel. (According to the audio tour, she felt that way, too. )

We learned that it took 36 fulltime staff to run the place and its grounds. 36 fellow humans, fulltime residents of the town presumably, spending their working lives solely keeping that place going for its New Yorkers ‘ six week season. Those stats themselves would be enough to keep one from sleeping at night.

How to think about these mansions? Even if only a fraction of the 1% gets to live there, isn’t it wonderful that such architecture exists? Aren’t we sort of glad that we live in an economy and society that permits such concentration of wealth, even if it seems at times sort of obscene?

Don’t we allow ourselves to admire the great pyramids of Egypt despite the slave society that made them possible, telling ourselves that these monuments to the wealthy are also monuments to humanity in general?

Is our reaction to actually living in such places, preferring our own human-scaled, cozy rooms, just the aesthetic of sour grapes? Or is there an actual contradiction between “beautiful” and “unliveable,” the architecture of ostentation necessarily flawed by being ostentatious?

In our town of Wellfleet the closest we came to Gilded Age splendor was Lorenzo Dow Baker, who made his fortune importing bananas from Jamaica. He built a substantial house in the middle of town, but it wasn’t a grandiose trophy house. Its most obvious decoration was a bunch of bananas he kept hanging from the porch ceiling.

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