As the Gilded Age reached full swing in the late 1880s, ornate, elegant stone mansions appeared on the Newport skyline, eclipsing earlier, more humble, wooden summer cottages. The city developed a new identity as a summer resort and place of conspicuous consumption, and the “cottages” along Bellevue Avenue became even more extravagant.
In 1888, William Kissam Vanderbilt gave his wife Alva Marble House as a 39th birthday gift. The railroad magnate spared no expense on his wife’s summer home, which used 500,000 cubic feet of various marbles, gathered from across the globe, and is estimated to have cost $11 million at the time of construction. Francophile Alva Vanderbilt appreciated the work of architect Richard Morris Hunt, trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Hunt built Marble House in the shape of a perfect cube, drawing inspiration from King Louis XV’s Petit Trianon château in on the grounds of Versailles.
Marble House was featured in the 2008 film 27 Dresses, as the location of a decadent wedding. The film centers on Jane, played by Katherine Heigl, who wrestles with her decision to coordinate a wedding between her sister and a man who Jane secretly loves. Although the film presents Marble House in a flattering light, Alva Vanderbilt might have found irony in her home being used as the backdrop for a film that revolves around themes of marriage and women’s dependence on men.
Alva and William Vanderbilt shocked high society in March 1895 when they announced their divorce. In addition to a $10 million dollar settlement, Alva walked away from the divorce with Marble House and several estates. Alva was particularly enamored by Marble House, and chose to construct an elaborate Chinese teahouse behind the residence, inviting workers from China to complete the project.
Alva Vanderbilt became involved in the Suffrage movement, and in 1914 a meeting of woman activists inaugurated the teahouse. Marble House became a haven for women’s rights activists, and when Alva died in 1933, her funeral was conducted entirely by women. Today, the Preservation Society of Newport maintains Marble House. The property’s ornate appearance makes it an ideal location for grand events, and for movies that feature them.