Ⓒ Nick Mele

Newport has been considered a summer resort destination since the time of the American Revolution. Its easy accessibility to the sea has made it an ideal place for the well-to-do to escape the heat of summer in time before the invention of air conditioning. Long standing trade relationships with Charleston and Savannah always gave the City by The Sea a bit of genteel southern flair. Wealthy families from New York, Boston and Philadelphia chose Newport has a place together in the Gilded Age, which was the period after the Civil War when industrialization created enormous fortunes in railroads oil copper and other materials. Particularly after William Backhouse Astor Jr. and his wife Caroline Astor purchased Beechwood in 1861, Newport became the place for the old money to summer and the new money immediately followed. In the 40-year period between 1870 and 1910, hundreds of large “summer cottages” (some three times the size of the White House at the time) were built in what has long been a relatively quiet and elegant summer outpost. Many of these enormous Gilded Age properties are in the hands of families that have been part of the “Newport Summer Colony” for many generations. This extraordinary condition where people are living in grand homes that were built and decorated by their ancestors is unusual in America where people are transient moving both in location and social status. A new book called A Newport Summer by photographer Nick Mele and designer Ruthie Summers has just been published by Vendome Press.

Ⓒ Nick Mele

This lovely, oversized book is full of behind-the-scenes photos by Nick Mele, who has often been called the “New Slim Aarons” for his access and ability to capture the American “old guard” at play in their natural setting. Mr. Mele is the grandson of the redoubtable Marion “Oatsie” Charles, who was one of the Doris Dukes closest friends. Three generations of his family have lived in “Land’s End” which was a mansion once owned by Edith Wharton, the author who captured The Gilded Age in literature better than anyone else. Mele has partnered with Ruthie Summers, a designer and writer who is part of the second of three generations living in Beachmound, a grand 20,000 sf of Classical Revival Style home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The book is divided into four chapters, one for each month of the summer. In a short introduction, Ms. Summers shares her inside perspective and the mindset for each month. Mr. Mele’s photos, sometimes humorous, sometimes grand but always insightful to place and way of life, that will be amazing and impactful to the book’s readers. What’s striking is how comfortable and even nonchalant the inhabitants of the Gilded Age mansions are, whether its dogs sitting on hundred-year-old antiques, women in heels and gowns lounging around on lawns or children running playfully in front of an enormous mansion. The photographs capture people who are as comfortable in these spaces as fish in water. It is amazing that so many of these extraordinary Gilded Age mansions still exist in Newport. It is perhaps even more amazing how many of these mansions are still in the same hands three and four generations after.

Ⓒ Nick Mele

Mele and Summers have called this book a “love letter” to the grand and gracious Newport Summers they have known and enjoyed. And yet there is also a wistfulness about the book. Many of the photographs in the book show the “Grand Dames” of Newport who have padded in the past five or ten years. They are elegant, gracious ladies who never had to earn a paycheck in their lives. As Mele observes, “It is our generation that is having to go to work to earn our keep.” Mele is doing so as a photographer and Summers as an interior designer. This book is a bravura demonstration of how stunning and different the artistic eye is of someone who has lived in these elegant settings their entire lives. It is something that others can appreciate and admire but which cannot be replicated by the uninitiated.

Ⓒ Nick Mele

In the past 10 years Newport has been undergoing its third renaissance as some of the wealthiest families in the world rediscover Newport. These families have seen that many of these extraordinary houses, although much more expensive than they were thirty years ago, are still selling for less than their replacement value. Larry Ellison has purchased Beechwood and the properties on either side of it that were varved of it fifty years ago. Steve Schwarzman and Mike Walters have reportedly bought adjacent mansions just a few houses down Bellevue Avenue from Beechwood. Last year, during COVID Lord Julian Fellowes who created Downton Abbey, is creating an American equivalent called “The Gilded Age” and used the opportunity during the pandemic to use a dozen of Newport’s extraordinary houses, both public and private, to shoot the first season. Trudy Coxe, CEO of the Preservation Society of Newport County stated that this show is clearly influencing visitation of its properties because web traffic to the organizations site jumps after each episode. The timing of the publication of A Newport Summer seems perfect to capture the city’s history where the past is still present but the future of the city as the world rediscovers its beauty is perhaps less certain.

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