NEWPORT, R.I. -- Newport generally conjures images of the Vanderbilts, the Astors and the one per cent of the Gilded Age throwing lavish parties in their summer "cottages." And rightly so. In that era, this small coastal city served as an over-the-top summer playground for some of the nation's wealthiest citizens. Each season, a proper Newport hostess -- to maintain her social standing -- would have to hold six dinner parties with 60 guests each, and two balls with an invitation list of 600 each.
The glittering party came crashing to a halt after 1913, when the advent of the personal-income tax, among other factors, made entertaining on such a grand scale no longer possible.
But Newport's history as a magnet for the prominent -- and a place where people got rich -- dates back even further, to its "Golden Age" during the colonial era. Today, some 300 buildings from the pre-Revolutionary War period -- supposedly more than anywhere else in the United States -- survive along narrow streets and back alleys, making it easy to imagine those bygone days.
On a recent visit, I set out to trace Newport's history from its 17th-century origins through its late 19th-century heyday.
I started at the Museum of Newport History, in the circa 1762 Brick Market building, which was originally built as an open-air trading area near Narragansett Bay harbour. The museum offers a helpful overview of Newport's founding in 1639 as a "haven of toleration" where Christians and Jews could worship openly, and the first place in the colonies to separate church and state.
The "toleration" label is a bit of a misnomer, as not everyone got equal treatment: Nearly one-in-four families in colonial times owned slaves of African descent, and Catholics weren't really welcomed until the early 19th century. Still, Newport's relative openness is credited with helping it become a thriving commercial centre for furniture making, candle production and rum distilling.
The latter trade has been revived a few miles outside downtown by the makers of Thomas Tew Rum, which is produced in the same facility as Newport Storm craft beer. Once the rum capital of the world, Newport saw its last distillery shutter more than a century ago. Thomas Tew Rum is made from traditional ingredients (blackstrap molasses) and techniques (single-batch production in a pot still), as in colonial times.
During my self-guided tour, I learn about the distilling process and later tasted the rum in three stages. Aged in bourbon barrels from Woodford Reserve, the final product offers a spiced-sweet profile that would have been the perfect antidote to a lack of central heating. (If you can't get to the distillery, the rum is sold in about a dozen states.)
Eager to learn more about the connection between colonial Newport and the souped-up houses lining Bellevue Avenue, I join the Newport Historical Society's "Golden to Gilded" tour.
The tour takes a zigzag path uphill, from Newport's origins at the waterfront ending on Bellevue Avenue, near some of the city's most storied mansions. Along the way, we pass the Colony House, a handsome red-brick Georgian-style building that's the fourth-oldest statehouse in the country and served as a barracks for both British and French troops during the American Revolution; the Touro Synagogue, the oldest such house of worship in North America and the site of a visit by President George Washington in August 1790, when Rhode Island was helping lead the call for the adoption of the Bill of Rights; and the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, the nation's first public lending library, dating from 1750.
For a sense of how the colonists may have whiled away their nights, I stop by the White Horse Tavern, which dates to 1673 and claims to be the nation's oldest continuously operating such drinking establishment.
In the low-ceilinged bar, I sipped a 1673 Limbo IPA made expressly for the tavern by Long Trail Brewing, as the bartender regales me with stories from the present (Woody Allen and his wife, Soon-Yi, dined there the week before), the not-so-distant past (a young Jacqueline Bouvier reportedly was a regular) and history (Ben Franklin was said to have thrown back a few here). Upstairs is the original bar and a series of intimate period-style dining rooms.
But as I learn on the tour, Newport's Golden Age wasn't to last. The outbreak of the Revolutionary War, during which the British occupied the city from 1776 through 1779, and the War of 1812 caused the local economy to crash.
A new resort identity began to emerge by the 1840s, when well-to-do New Yorkers and Bostonians began summering in town.
The uber-wealthy built grand summer "cottages," mostly along Bellevue Avenue. Among the best known are the Breakers, a 70-room cottage that defines over-the-top with its marble, platinum and gold trimmings and mantelpieces, and furniture and artwork shipped in from Europe, and Rosecliff, which features a grand ballroom used in the 1974 big-screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby and served as a stand-in for the White House in Amistad. Today, the street is part of a historic district, with nine houses open for tours, and a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame.
Newport's famous Cliff Walk, a seaside promenade along the rear of these properties, is anchored by the Chanler, an upscale boutique hotel very much in the keeping-up-with-the-Vanderbilts spirit of the area.
Sipping a gin and tonic on an Adirondack chair perched on the hotel's green velvet lawn, I contemplated the two eras and thought that all that's gilded might be better than gold.
Robert DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based writer and co-founder of TheCityTraveler.com.