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The Rich Are Different From You and Me--They Charge to Open the Door : Newport: Millionaires' Row is the largest tourist attraction in Rhode Island. A dozen of the most opulent mansions admit anyone for $6 or $7--quite a comedown from the days when an invitation required $5 million.


NEWPORT, R.I. — For two miles along Bellevue Avenue, also known as "Millionaires' Row," stately mansions loom like fortresses behind gilded wrought-iron fences and towering stone walls.

But times have changed for these relics of Newport's Golden Age, which have names like Chateau-Sur-Mer, Marble House and Belcourt Castle.

Today, a dozen of the most opulent homes carry open invitations to anyone with the $6 to $7 price of admission. Busloads of tourists are the most frequent guests.

Inheritance taxes and the enormous cost of upkeep have been the driving force behind much of the transition from private to public. As owners have died, heirs have turned the mansions over to preservationists who have promised to keep them safe from developers' blueprints and power saws.

One of the last to die was Newport socialite Edith Wetmore, who never married and died in 1966. She was well into her 80s when she made her first trip to the grocery store--a chauffeur-driven excursion from her palatial home to the new A&P about a mile away.

Accompanied by a friend who guided her through the aisles, helped her load the basket and led her to the checkout counter, she finally came to the cash register without a penny in her purse.

Socialite Wetmore, whose income was about $6,000 a day, never thought about carrying money. The friend had to pay.

That says something about the lush world she came from, when turn-of-the-century society saw families like the Vanderbilts and Astors summering in 50-room "cottages" with household staffs that outnumbered occupants 10 to 1.

Inside the homes, floors of imported Italian marble and hardwood are covered with Persian carpets. Windows overlooking Rhode Island Sound are draped in red velvet and walls are covered with spun silk.

Carved woodwork and plaster climb pillared walls and up spacious and winding stairways lit by huge crystal chandeliers.

They were the playhouses of vainglorious business magnates who wanted to pay homage to themselves: Bachelor Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont's initials "OB" were inlaid in silk wall coverings in the Belcourt Castle he built as a gentleman's retreat.

Designed in the style of Louis XIII's hunting lodge at Versailles, France, Belmont's 60-room "cottage" was built by handpicked craftsmen from Europe, Scandinavia and Scotland. It had a single medieval-style bedroom and rooms for 30 servants.

Other mansion owners etched family monograms in stained-glass windows, and struck regal poses for sculptors and painters, whose renditions of themselves they prominently displayed.

In Edith Wetmore's day, 10-course meals were eaten off solid gold services. Local legend has it that one hostess barred from her table anyone who had less than $5 million. Another would not serve those whose cottages, furnished, cost less than $1 million.

In the Marble House--which cost $2 million to build and $9 million to furnish in 1892--footmen stood by at dinner parties to push in and pull out the 80-pound gilded bronze chairs around the immense mahogany dining room table.

Caroline Schermerhorn, who married William Backhouse Astor in 1853 and became the undisputed queen of American society, insisted on being called "The Mrs. Astor."

Their summer home was the Astors' Beechwood, now privately owned but open to the public. A costumed staff re-creates the Astors' lifestyle of the 1890s.

With the help of a Southern gentleman, Ward McAllister, "The Mrs. Astor" devised her famous "Four Hundred," a list of 213 families and individuals whose lineage could be traced back at least three generations. Four hundred also was the number of guests who could comfortably fit into the ballroom of her New York Home.

Some of the homes remain private, partly hidden behind ancient beech and black walnut trees and guarded by padlocked gates. Still others have fallen into the hands of developers--condominium contractors--to the ire of the locals.

"Edith Wetmore was one of the last who had 'John the Butler' and 'Annie the Maid,' " said Harle Tinney, whose husband's family bought Belcourt Castle in 1956 and opened it for public tours a year later.

Harle and Donald Tinney now live in 25 rooms in the west and south wings of the second floor.

Eileen Slocum has watched the passage from private to public from her Harold Carter Brown House, a 100-year-old Gothic revival-style estate built by her uncle, a member of the family that established Brown University.

She is one of a diminishing number of year-round residents along Millionaires' Row.

The interior design and furnishings of Slocum's own home have remained virtually unchanged for a century, when Harold Brown commissioned the house for his new bride, Georgette Wetmore Sherman, Eileen Slocum's aunt.

Sterling silver, crystal and china lamps and vases, bronze and plaster statues and walls of leather-bound books fill the stately home which the Slocums have occupied for 34 years.

The society belles of the Golden Age often never married, Slocum recalls.

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