Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

A story of sadness and Generosity - Rosecliff

Wednesday September 18,2013
Newport, Rhode Island



So many mansions, so little time.


We begin our day at The Breakers and due to circumstances which you can read about here we left Marble House after short while and walked down the blocks to Rosecliff.

Rosecliff was the home of Theresa Fair Oelrichs whose father made an enormous fortune in Nevada’s Comstock silver lode.  Tessie was a darling of San Francisco society but she felt the real society was on the east coast and she intended to conquer it.  Her husband’s niece Blanch Oelrichs said she was “strongly addicted to society as a business”.  Her work was calling cards and invitations, dinners and balls, gowns and jewels. She reached her apex as mistress of Rosecliff. 



But first……..


Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 092


As we walk up the drive and around to take some pictures of the front of the mansion before going inside we get a wonderful surprise.

There is a huge American Elm tree right here for us to hug.  The American Elm, like the Chestnut of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was completely wiped out.  In the elm’s case due to Dutch elm disease which is a fungus and spread by the elm bark beetle an exotic oriental insect.  The disease was first reported in the U.S. in 1928 and ultimately killed nearly all the elm trees in New England.  David says he hasn’t seen an elm since the  one in the yard of his childhood home on Long Island.   Seeing this elm  is very exciting for me especially because of the loss of all the Chestnuts in our mountains due to the chestnut blight, also from an oriental insect.  The chestnut is such a strong tree that it continually puts up sprouts from the old roots.  They grow to 4 feet or so before they are attacked and killed again.  We see these trees trying and trying to grow in the woods at the farm.   It just makes me sing to see this healthy elm tree when nearly all were lost.


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Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 091 



When we  turn around, there is the house which was created as “a showcase for extravagant summer entertainments”. 


The architect, Stanford White,  modeled it after the Grand Trianon, a baroque pleasure pavilion built in the great park of Versailles as a retreat for Louis XIV  and his mistress.




I enjoy the details of these homes.  The exquisite statues, arches, benches and all the artistic craftsmanship.


I doubt they will let me eat a picnic lunch on this marble bench near the fountain which is not on today.

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Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 096 





Notice these statues between the upper windows.  All around the house, the statues are all different and intricately done.


Rosecliff balcony statuesRosecliff balcony statues1 





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In the front door we go. 


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Does he look like the butler?  Strange uniform.

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As in the other homes, no photographs are permitted inside.  I find a lot of photos of the ballroom on line.  It seems it is an extremely popular place to rent for your wedding.  Nice income for the society.  Beautiful backdrop for a wedding.





This room with gold ceilings, walls, draperies, chairs…… is known as the salon.  This is real gold leaf.





This house was the scene of some of the most fantastic parties of  Newport history.


 rosecliff stair


Tessie Oelrich made sure of that.  At her Bal Blanc which highlighted the week of the Astor Cup Race, everything from the floral decorations to her own lace dress embroidered with silver was done in white.  Banks of white hydrangeas, roses, orchids and lilies of the valley surrounded the house inside and out.  The east lawn fountain was stocked with swans and a mock fleet of specially-constructed white ships floated on the waves in the waters off shore.  She continued to make Rosecliff the scene of fabulous events until the advent of the income tax in 1913 began the decline of the Newport’s Gilded age. 


rosecliff window 


Obviously in 100 years the wealthy have managed to buy politicians to create loopholes for them so that again they have 100% of their income for multiple houses and other toys .  Call me cynical, but the extreme affluence and the huge gap between the rich and the poor of this time do remind me a great deal of the current situation.  Guess no one wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the income tax this year.  How did they pay for the wars before 1913??





rosecliff pink room


The advent of the Great War of 1918 pretty much put an end to the life that Tessie Oelrichs lived for.  At that point, she was in her fifties.  Tessie’s niece writes that her aunt spent her last years at Rosecliff “in the company of imaginary guests, inviting them to stay just a little longer…to take one more glass of champagne”.  Tessie died in 1926 at age 57. 

Her son Herman continued to occupy Rosecliff in the summers until 1941.  He sold it for $21,000 and the new owner neglected it so that water pipes froze and burst.  The house was inundated with ice.  Ray Alan Van Clief bought the house, had it fully repaired and refurnished but en route to Newport for his first stay he was killed in an automobile accident.



The story does ultimately have a happy ending.


Rosecliff garden


Pretty sad tales until Mr. and Mrs. J. Edgar Monroe of New Orleans purchased Rosecliff, fully restored it, summered here for twenty-five years and in August 1971 gave the 21 acre estate with all its furnishings and a trust fund for its maintenance to the Preservation Society of Newport.  A magnanimous gift indeed.


Due to the loss of the original furniture, only some of the rooms are furnished as they were in Tessie Oelrichs’ time.  The others, particularly the bedrooms, are furnished as they were when the house was given to the society.



You can rent Rosecliff for any occasion you like.


Rosecliff back


Some of the splendor of Rosecliff’s Gilded Age past was recreated when the house and ballroom were used as a setting for scenes from the films The Great Gatsby, The Betsy, True Lies and Amistad.


As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, there is an event taking place this evening at Rosecliff.  Therefore it is difficult to get pictures of the home from the back with the giant awning set up.  But I did get one of the pool in which the white swans were swimming for Tessie’s Bal Blanc.  Wonder if Tessie had seven swans a swimming?




Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 124 



In comments about these Newport “cottages” several folks expressed my opinion exactly.  It’s beautiful but it wouldn’t feel like home to me.  They all felt like showplaces.  And too cold, not literately but emotionally.  Even the bedrooms did not feel intimate.

Someone asked about the servants.  The Elms has a separate tour devoted to the servants quarters and life.  The houses had up to 40 servants to keep them running.  Isn’t that just amazing??  Forty people to take care of one family and their guests.

From the stories I read, the men and women who worked here liked doing so and were grateful for the employment.  I would like to take the Elms tour about the servants and have put it on my NEXT TIME list, along with the Marble House.  I really do have to see how Alice and Alva’s homes compare.  :-)

There are a total of 11 mansions and grounds available for tours.  We have done three and have a forever ticket for two more of our choice.  Some have audio self guided tours and some have actual guides.  The charge is the same for either.


Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 138


I’ve enjoyed my time in Newport and would definitely come back since I have several things on my ‘next time’ list including the Block Island Ferry and some great ice cream if someone can advise where to get it.  :-)


  1. It has been great seeing your in depth stories about Newport. We were only there for a day, saw the Breakers from the coast walkway, but I was amazed at the grandeur of some of those mansions, and really appreciated what a lovely place it was. I would also like to go back. Prior to our cruise to that area, I hadn't even heard of Newport RI. Lovely

  2. I'm happy seeing these mansions through your eyes and you gave an excellent tour.

  3. That staircase looks like the one in Downton Abbey. What a glitzy place! Love the elm :) Another great history. I got a real feeling for the place through this blog. I agree with your sentiments about rich & poor. It's always been an issue-probably always will be :(

  4. Those mansions are oozing with opulence! Like you said, not very appealing for a summer home.
    Just curious if you found out how much it costs to rent Rosecliff for an event. I looked at their website but they won't tell.

  5. Perhaps we should all get together and rent Rosecliff for a bloggers get together. ;)

  6. I'm with Judy..we should rent it and have a big RV party!

    1. What a hoot that would be. I didn't check to see if their parking lot was big enough for a giant gathering but it would be so funny. Poor little Tessie, what would she think?

  7. LOL -- we third Judy's idea to have a bloggers' convention at Rosecliff. That's a great idea! Can't you just imagine Tessie's reaction??!!

  8. I am still dumbstruck by the tragedy of Ray Alan Van Clief. I was further stricken when I looked him up and found he is buried in Esmont, Virginia, very near where we once lived in Scottsville. Sherry connected the dots and we both realized he was part of the Van Clief family that had a mansion in Albemarle county that is now in ruins and far beyond any hope of restoration. It is sad to see.

  9. I am behind in keeping up with your posts. I don't know how you do all these things and still have time to write about it!

    Quite the story about Tessie and her Ball Blanc. Entertaining imaginary guests is a sure sign she let this lifestyle take her over the edge. It is a sad tale to be so far removed from true joy.

    Discovering the beautiful American Elm was a bonus. I didn't know they were so rare to see on the East Coast, but I did know about the rampant nature of Dutch Elm disease. Glad you were there to give it a hug.

  10. Wow Sherry didn't know you guys were going to be in my back yard, your could of got a night in Pomona Campground just off the NJ parkway (Ext41SB) How you get down to see Cape May and don't forget to ask about the Cape May CH Zoo. Have fun on your way home...:)

    1. Hey Joey, long time no hear from. Glad to see you back. Pomona was too close to our destination. I needed something in the middle of our trip from Newport to Cape May. Up about 50 miles or so from the beginning of the Garden State Parkway. But thanks for the suggestion.

  11. David,
    I remember too the beautiful elms that use to line the streets of Levittown.


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