In 1848, the Berwind family welcomed Edward Julius into their Philadelphia home. The Berwinds, who emigrated from Germany, laid the foundation for little Edward to grow into a driven, prosperous individual in a sometimes harsh, American workforce.
As a teenager, Edward set his eyes on the US Navy. By 17, the young man had joined the United States Naval Academy, then located in Newport, Rhode Island. With a strong drive, and deep passion, young Mr. Berwind accomplished many goals as a naval officer until he sought new endeavors at 27-years-old.
In 1875, Edward made a decision that would take his reality from ordinary to extraordinary. He, along with his brothers, took up business in the coal industry, leading him to govern the New York office of the family operation. The firm was soon the biggest dealer of coal, and owned more coal properties than any other firm. As the company grew, so did the ambitions of the individuals running it. They set their sights on railroads and steamships, which generated even more riches to the wildly successful group.
With immeasurable accomplishments under his belt, Edward Julius Berwind married Herminie Torrey. Like Berwind, Torrey was the daughter of a prosperous family. Her father was the US Consul to Italy. In 1888, The Berwinds moved in to a quaint, Victorian cottage on a small property with a Bellevue address. Though the house was charming, the couple had their hearts set on a home more suited for royalty than a commoner.
On August 30th, 1901, the palace of Newport was completed. The Elms, one of the Gilded Age’s most famous cottages, opened its doors for the first time to over 200 guests with an 18th century cotillion. Countless couples swayed to music in the flower-infested ballroom while Berger’s Hungarian Orchestra and Mullally’s Orchestra tickled their ears. Monkeys scattered about in the gardens while onlookers adored them. It was an over the top event, which was not typical of the Berwind family.
Jules Allard & Sons beautifully decorated the residence. Exquisite pieces of art and grand paintings flooded the halls and lavish rooms, but what took guests breath away was on the outside of the walls. The Elms is arguably home to the most beautiful piece of land in Newport. With its close presence to the road, one passing would never assume the grandeur that lay on the other side of the spectacular home. Many acres of beautifully maintained grass, gardens, and fountains lay under an expanse of open sky. The back exterior is even more beautiful than the front.
The 10 acres of pristine property nurture 40 species of trees and a variety of shrubs and flowers. Like any palace, most bushes are perfectly sculpted. At the far end of the yard lay two twin structures, or teahouses. Just beyond them, and out of sight, a sunken garden full of begonias rests at the properties edge.
The building itself is a showcase of classical themes, keeping balance in order. The windows and doors throughout cater to symmetry, as do paintings and mirrors. While the home appears to be two levels, a third floor housing 16 rooms for the servants is hidden from sight by high decorative walls and lavish exterior moldings. Upon completion, the home was valued at $1.4MM, or about $35MM today.
In 1922, Herminie Berwind passed away leaving her childless husband behind. Edward’s sister, who never married, moved in to the Elms and took the role as hostess to the estate. Mr. Berwind spent most of his time in New York City, working as he always did until three years before his death. He was 85, and upon his passing in 1936, Julia inherited The Elms. Twenty-five years later in 1961, Julia died at 96 after years of chess games with friends, and even her butler.
After the heirs to the estate sold the property and the contents inside, the developer that purchased the home decided to demolish the beautiful Gilded Age masterpiece. Fortunately, before any wrecking ball made contact with the home, the Preservation Society of Newport County managed to pull together enough funds to buy the home and save it for future generations to enjoy.
The Elms is one of my personal favorite homes. The moment I passed through the ornate gates, I instantly fell in love with the estate. It screams of classical elegance, and each room confirmed my initial feelings. It was one of the few houses that I could feel the energy. Just standing off to the side, I could visualize guests arriving for grand events. I could hear the instruments playing as heels pounded the wooden floors below. What I found most interesting was the least jaw dropping- the staff workspace in the lower level under ground. The kitchen was clean, large, and built to cater. For a moment, I felt like I was in Downton Abbey about to see Mrs. Patmore yell at Daisy for spending too much time doing math.
But as those characters were invisible in my head, so they were in real life. The Elms was a magical home where the staff was unseen, and the entrance for goods was hidden from sight under a canopy of vines. Though they were to be unnoticed by the occupants, their work is clearly evident. The Elms, like those who ran it, deserves to be seen.
Written and Photographed by Matthew J. Niewenhous
“The Elms.” http://www.newportmansions.org/explore/the-elms. N.p., 2015. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.
Gannon, Thomas, and Paul Miller. Newport Mansions. Newport, RI: Preservation Society of Newport County, 2010. Print.