The Breakers During the Christmas Season (Newport, Rhode Island)

Newport has gained fame as the summer resort for wealthy families during the Gilded Age. The grand mansions, constructed between 1865 and 1915, were primarily utilized during an 8 to 10-week period from July to August. This is why palatial houses like the Breakers, spanning 120,000 square feet, are euphemistically referred to as ‘Newport Summer Cottages.’

The Marble House Grand Staircase (Newport, Rhode Island)

Now however, Newport has become much more of a year-round destination for both tourists and weekenders. As a result, the grand houses that were once dark during the winters are now active and beautifully decorated for the holiday season. “The Preservation Society of Newport County, which owns and operates 11 properties for visitation, opens four of those properties during December: the Breakers (Richard Morris Hunt, 1878), Marble House (Richard Morris Hunt, 1886), the Elms (Horace Trumbauer, 1901), and Rosecliff (McKim, Mead, and White, 1901).”

The Breakers Christmas Tree in the Main Foyer (Newport, Rhode Island)

These are among the grandest mansions, not just in Newport, but anywhere in the world. It is not coincidental that these are the same houses that are used extensively as backdrops and settings for Julian Fellowes televsion drama, “ The Gilded Age.” The term was reportedly coined by Mark Twain to divisively indicate that the flash and glitter of the era was a shallow coating and not a substance, but has resorted over time. It was an era when a relative few lived like kings, while the vast majority lived hard lives of hard toil.

The Breakers Music Hall (Newport, Rhode Island)

Still, the magnificent mansions of Newport are the golden sendimentation of that time when the few built and entertained lavishly. The Christmas decoration matches that grand and extravagant character. Whether it is 16 foot trees made from stacked poinsettia plants in the Breakers, or the tree in the middle of the Marble House entry foyer covered with golden ornaments, each room of each house has been decorated in a lavish style made to be as complementary to that house and room’s architecture as possible.

Newport, Rhode Island, Boat Parade

“Elsewhere, in the colonial parts of Newport, houses are decorated in a much more subdued manner, with pine garlands surrounding the doors and evergreen wreaths hanging on the front doors. The harborfront stores feature decorations of candles in the windows and white lights. (While colored lights and inflatable décor are not outlawed, they are socially discouraged and considered ‘flashy and tacky.’)

The Ida Lewis Yacht Club, closed during the winter months, is outlined with white fairy lights. This ensures that the buildings, situated on the historic Lime Rock, remain a landmark throughout the winter for residents and mariners alike.

Rose Light House (Newport, Rhode Island)

To foster the holiday spirit, activities are organized during the winter months. Tree lightings in Washington Square, Bowen’s Wharf, and various locations around the city are geared towards this purpose, along with the illuminated boat parade.

Christmas Tree Located at Bowens Wharf (Newport, Rhode Island)

While summer remains Newport’s busiest season, the fall and winter seasons are progressively becoming busier. This increasing activity is reflected in the holiday decorations adorning our architectural treasures and the schedule of activities during what used to be quieter times than they are today.

Bowen’s Wharf, Clark Cooke House, Christmas Decorations (Newport, Rhode Island)


Ross Cann, RA, AIA, LEED AP, is an author, historian, teacher and practicing architect living and working in Newport, RI. He holds degrees in Architecture and Architectural History from Yale, Cambridge, and Columbia Universities.