Decorating Newport’s Gilded Age Mansions For Christmas

Balazs DengyelShutterstock

Many houses on the historical register find it cost prohibitive to decorate for the winter holidays the way it was done back in the glory days of the home. Luckily, the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island don’t have that problem, because back in the Gilded Age, they were summer home and either empty or functioning with a skeleton crew in the offseason.

But Town & Country says that houses like The Breakers, Marble House, and The Elms are big draws for winter tours and holiday events, and so the stately homes need to be dressed in their holiday finest, which requires a team of around one hundred volunteers.

The Preservation Society of Newport County puts together a tour for Christmas at the Newport Mansions. Jim Donahue, curator of historic landscapes and horticulture at the Preservation Society of Newport County says that their group takes the feel of the individual house and turns it into a winter wonderland each year.

“Each house is stylistically different, and we underscore those differences through the Christmas decorations. The Elms has a pastoral, country feel to it, while Marble House is completely over-the-top Rococo, and the Breakers is Beaux Arts.”

Donahue explains that because the houses weren’t decorated for Christmas back when they were built, they are free to go with modern decorating techniques.

“These mansions were summer cottages; they were not originally decorated for Christmas.”

Donahue says that the volunteers start decorating the Newport homes for the holidays in late October, and it takes about one hundred volunteers about four hundred hours to get all of the decorating done once it’s all planned out.

Donahue explains that many of his volunteers come back year after year.

“Some volunteers have been helping me for a decade! Many have preferred rooms and projects that they work on.”

The fire code for Newport County says that they can’t use live trees in the stately homes because of the fire hazard, so synthetic trees are used with real plants woven in. Featured among the three houses are poinsettias, lilies, azaleas as well as paperwhites, amaryllis, and mini-evergreens to give it that holiday smell.

Donahue says that the art and architecture of the houses are taken into account when planning the holiday decor.

“Take Marble House for example. The Gothic Room has a tree that has all Gothic and Renaissance-inspired ornaments on it. The ballroom of Marble House is almost completely gilded, so we have a gilded tree—we want to enhance the quality of the tour guests take when they visit the mansions.”

Donahue explains that throughout the year, he keeps his eyes open for new items that might work in a particular room.

“The morning room at The Breakers has a snowflake and platinum theme. If I happen to see a decoration appropriate for that room—be it platinum or a snowflake that we don’t have—then I may retire something off of that tree and replace it with the new ornament!”