There are house museums and then there are the Newport, Rhode Island mansions. No matter what you think of historic houses, house museums, and tours, it is impossible to be unimpressed by the Newport mansions. This is particularly true about The Breakers, the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt and family, the quintessential home of the Gilded Age.
Recently, a dear preservation friend and fellow UVM alum, Katie gave me a weekend tour of Newport, which included a visit to The Breakers. The tour was an audio tour, a new experience for me. Each guest is given a headset and small audio device. Signs guide you from room to room along with directions narrated on the recording. Each room has a separate audio track. All you have to do is press play when you are in a new room. You can listen and move about the room, and linger until you are ready to move. Supplemental tracks give more information to those interested. Katie and I did our best to press play at the same time. A few times we had to correct the track, but all we had to do was type in the track number.
You know what? The audio tour was excellent. It was clear, informative, interesting and included oral history excerpts. Often in historic preservation we talk about the lack of accurate sounds for historic houses – and audio tours solve that. I loved it. Granted, I could have been entertained with very little in The Breakers, but I am glad to have taken the audio tour.
The Breakers is breathtaking and almost left me speechless. The opulence is evident in every single inch of the mansion from floor to ceiling. They look impressive on the exterior yes, but the interior – my goodness, I cannot do it justice. The lifestyles are fascinating – what a unique period of time and social class in American history, one that will never happen again (the Gilded Age was prior to the income tax). Most of us cannot fathom such a life.
But how grateful we should be to the Newport Preservation Society for preserving and sharing these mansions and this history with us, and for providing us with the opportunity to imagine the life of the Gilded Age.
By all means, visit the Newport mansions when you are in Rhode Island. And do tell, what do you think of audio tours?