In the Season 3 season opener (here in the States) Carson the Butler laments “Where’s the style and where’s the show?”. Times they are a-changing and change is coming full force to that little backwater pile in Yorkshire known as Downton Abbey. As Carson and the downstairs staff labor on to provide the same level of fabulousness of days gone by with limited staff members and financial constraints, those above stairs are also trying to keep up appearances. The big deal of this episode, which mainly served to remind us who all the characters are and their various story lines, was the long-anticipated introduction of Shirley MacLaine as Countess Cora’s wealthy American mother, Martha Levinson. Mrs. L is a widow about which we really know very little other than she’s fabulously wealthy, has homes in New York and Newport and the money came from tin. In the days of The Gilded Age, the original Masters of the Universe with names like Vanderbilt and Astor made their money in commodities such as steel, coal (and presumably tin), precious metals and in transportation. The summer “cottages” in Newport were palatial affairs that were often inspired by European country castles. Social customs were exacting and the grand dames were elegant, well-traveled women of good breeding and education. As a still young country, rich or no, we still looked to our European forebearers for approval and many a young American heiress was shipped off with a bundle of family cash to marry into the European nobility who was simultaneously coming to the end of their inherited fortunes. Much like our Countess Cora did when the Levinson family tin money saved Downton some thirty years prior to the story line.
And so, we anticipated a clashing of cultures when Mrs. Levinson came to visit – especially as foil to the estimable Violet, the Dowager Countess as played by Dame Maggie Smith. These two great actresses, playing two grande dames, should have been great fun to watch, and of course they were. Where old meets new, tradition meets modernity and witty bon mots begets bitchy comeback. Ms. MacLaine didn’t disappoint – except in one glaringly bad scene where she was not so much chewing the scenery, but chewing it with her mouth open, cutlery flying. There are others who can speak to manners of the day much better than I, but seeing Mrs. Levinson eating while talking, never putting down her fork or knife and generally acting fairly boorish at the dining table was really a great disappointment. It was certainly a stereotypical portrayal, one that assumes American’s are ill-bread clods. It’s also hard to imagine how such a bore could have raised Cora whose behavior is always modulated and appropriate. No, it really was just a ham-handed portrayal and it’s a shame that either Ms. MacLaine wasn’t capable of pulling off a more nuanced character or writer/co-creator Julian Fellowes simply doesn’t understand his American history very well.
Anyway, while we don’t know exactly the extent of the Levinson family wealth or the size of their Newport cottage, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of the most famous addresses from the Gilded Age. Presumably, the character’s back story would have had her walking these halls and dining in splendor – with her mouth closed, hands in her lap. These homes were built and decorated by the biggest names in
architecture and decoration of the day, men whose work is seen on some
of America’s most prominent buildings across the country.
The Breakers: (via) The
Breakers is the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a symbol of
the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence in turn of the
century America. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, became Chairman
and President of the New York Central Railroad system in 1885, and
purchased a wooden house called The Breakers in Newport during that same
year. In 1893, he commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a
villa to replace the earlier wood-framed house which was destroyed by
fire the previous year. Hunt directed an international team of craftsmen
and artisans to create a 70 room Italian Renaissance- style palazzo
inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin. Allard and Sons
of Paris assisted Hunt with furnishings and fixtures, Austro-American
sculptor Karl Bitter designed relief sculpture, and Boston architect
Ogden Codman decorated the family quarters.
If you ever have a chance, take the Cliff Walk around the water side of the mansions, it’s a must-do! I did it on a very cold, New Year’s day a few years go – I’d suggest a nice May day instead!
The grand hall.
Up the grand stair case.
The morning room.
The dining room. One assumes there are many yards of table leafs stashed somewhere.
The loggia overlooking the Atlantic.
Rosecliff: Designed and built between 1899 and 1902 by Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White for Hermann and Tessie Oelichs. Hermann Oelichs was from a prominent Baltimore family that stretched back to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and Tessie’s father made millions as a partner in the famed Comstock Lode gold and silver mines. The house is modeled after the Petit Trianon in Versailles and has four stories, though it gives the impression of having only two.
This a decidedly feminine structure which featured a gorgeous double curved main stair case.
The dining room.
Rosecliffe was used in the movie The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford.
The Elms: (via) The
Elms was the summer residence of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind of
Philadelphia and New York. Mr. Berwind made his fortune in the
Pennsylvania coal industry. In 1898, the Berwinds engaged Philadelphia
architect Horace Trumbauer to design a house modeled after the mid-18th
century French chateau d’Asnieres (c.1750) outside Paris. Construction of The Elms was completed in 1901 at a cost reported at
approximately $1.4 million. The interiors and furnishings were designed
by Allard and Sons of Paris and were the setting for the Berwinds’
collection of Renaissance ceramics, 18th century French and Venetian
paintings, and Oriental jades.
The Entrance Hall and Grand Stair
The dining room.
The sitting room – decked out for Christmas.
The Marble House: (via) Marble
House was built between 1888 and 1892 for Mr. and Mrs. William K.
Vanderbilt. It was a summer house, or “cottage”, as Newporters called
them in remembrance of the modest houses of the early 19th century. But
Marble House was much more; it was a social and architectural landmark
that set the pace for Newport’s subsequent transformation from a quiet
summer colony of wooden houses to the legendary resort of opulent stone
palaces. The house was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt, inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
The Grand Stair
The Dining Room
The Ballroom (isn’t the herringbone floor to die for??)
Alva Vanderbilt’s bedroom
Alva’s Chinese Tea House on a bluff overlooking the ocean.
Additional links for Downton Abbey:
- Visit my Downton Abbey Board for Newport Mansions for additional images, links and credits for all of the above above.
- My friend Vic of Jane Austen’s World blog has a wonderful post on the fashions of the 1920‘s.
- Tom and Lorenzo are covering the show again in their fabulously opinionated fashion Here’s their recap of Episode One – Let Me Call You Sweetheart.
- Gotham Tomato, aka Deborah Gilbert, blogs on The Downton Dish for New York PBS affiliate WNET.
- Season 3, Episode One is available online here.
- This is what I need for DA watching. >>