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Smoking Rooms of the Gilded Age

Gilded Rooms Smoking Parlors Set a Style of Their Own in America's Great Age of Palaces
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 2)

The amount of cash sunk into erecting Newport "cottages" was simply staggering. Whereas Victoria Mansion cost the then-princely sum of $100,000, by 1892 William Kissam Vanderbilt, son of William Henry and grandson of the Commodore, had built Newport's Marble House, based on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, for $11 million. By the end of the century, the owners in Newport seemed to be playing what Warburton describes as a game of "my palace is bigger than your palace," and the homes showed it in every detail.

Among the eight properties that may be toured in Newport, dating from 1748 to 1902, are four of these revivalist mansions: two built by Vanderbilt heirs, one by the steamship owner Hermann Oelrichs and the other by coal magnate Edward J. Berwind. They represent only the tip of the iceberg, however. At one point there were as many as 50 mansions there.

More modest, but still breathtaking, are two houses from the middle part of the century, one done in Gothic and the other in Victorian style.

The Gothic-style Kingscote, which was built in 1839, was sold to William Henry King, a trader with China, in 1863. Though King was committed to a mental hospital in 1866 (where he enjoyed imported cigars), his nephew, David, continued his uncle's tradition of decorating with pieces and artwork imported from China. He began upgrading the rustic house to the new formality of Newport, adding a parlor-full of overstuffed Turkish furniture from the New York design firm of Léon Marcotte in 1878. He later commissioned a three-story addition by Stanford White, the architect who, with his partners McKim and Meade, would do much to define the Gilded Age.

Newport's preservation society is also custodian to Chateau-Sur-Mer, a Victorian home built in 1852 for William S. Wetmore, who also made his fortune in the China trade. His son, George Peabody Wetmore, who would later be governor of Rhode Island, commissioned Richard Morris Hunt in 1871 to renovate the house, reflecting fashionable European design. Hunt would go on to design 25 mansions and cottages in Newport and several along New York's Fifth Avenue. Among the added rooms was a French salon designed by Ogden Codman, a cousin of William Wetmore's, who wrote, with novelist Edith Wharton, The Decoration of Houses, a treatise on interior design that laid out the precepts of Gilded Age decor with its notions of restrained elegance, echoing European styles. In the mansion there are two pieces of particular interest to smokers: a Chinese-style lacquer cigar box made in the 1840s, emblazoned with the Wetmore coat of arms, and an owl-shaped humidor.

Given the scale of the truly great mansions of Newport, only a few architects were up to the task of designing them. Miller calls the change in American homes "a transformation so radical you wonder how one could have achieved it." They did it, in part, by employing the same designers over and over. Hunt became almost the family architect to the Vanderbilts, and McKim, Meade and White, cigar smokers all, picked up much of the rest of the business. White would play another role in the history of U.S. society when he was shot dead in 1906 by a jealous husband. The trial for the murder would provide pages and pages of scandal fodder to the yellow press of the era.

As the revivalist trend took over, the smoking room began to appear as a dual-purpose room, incorporating billiards, hunting motifs, or the library into the concept of the male domain. By the time Wharton and Codman inveighed against the clutter of the Victorian style, in 1897, they would have this to say about that compartment:

"The smoking-room proper, with its mise en scène of Turkish divans, narghilehs, brass coffee-trays, and other Oriental properties, is no longer considered a necessity in the modern house; and the room which would formerly have been used for this special purpose now comes rather under the head of the master's lounging-room or 'den'..."

The two self-appointed purveyors of style preached the wisdom of practicality in furnishing such a room:

"Fragile chairs, lace-petticoat lamp-shades and irrelevant bric-a-brac are consequently excluded....Thus freed from the superfluous, the den is likely to be the most comfortable room in the house; and the natural inference is that a room, in order to be comfortable, must be ugly. One can picture the derision of the man who is told that he might, without the smallest sacrifice of comfort or convenience, transact his business at a Louis XVI writing-table, seated in a Louis XVI chair!"


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