How Newport's Gilded Age Mansions Are Decorated for Christmas

Every year, a team of 100 volunteers gets down to holiday business.

the breakers great hall at christmas
Courtesy The Preservation Society of Newport County

The mansions of Newport, Rhode Island were once boarded up the moment the summer was over. The Gilded Age took its seasons seriously and the summer cottage was, well, just for summer.

No longer. Now operated as house museums by , three of the mansions—Marble House, the Elms, and the Breakers—reach their peak glory in the colder months. As soon as the seasons change, they transform into winter wonderlands for .

the breakers great hall at christmas
The Great Hall at the Breakers.
Courtesy The Preservation Society of Newport County

“Each house is stylistically different, and we underscore those differences through the Christmas decorations,” says Jim Donahue, curator of historic landscapes and horticulture at . “The Elms has a pastoral, country feel to it, while Marble House is completely over-the-top Rococo, and the Breakers is Beaux Arts.”

Instead of historically accurate Christmas decor, Donahue uses modern holiday decorating styles. He believes it's in the spirit of the Preservation Society's endeavor. “These mansions were summer cottages; they were not originally decorated for Christmas,” says Donahue.

The Gold Room of the Marble House decorated for Christmas.
The Gold Room of the Marble House decorated for Christmas.
Courtesy The Preservation Society of Newport County

Even if the homeowners were around back then, getting the mansions ready for the holidays would have been no small task. Today, Donahue and a team of around 100 volunteers start decorating in mid-October. It takes a full month, and about 400 hours, to kit out all three houses in time to open the week before Thanksgiving. “Some volunteers have been helping me for a decade! Many have preferred rooms and projects that they work on.”

Due to fire code, the 25 trees Donahue and his team decorate must be synthetic, but they weave in real plants to blur the line between artifice and reality. The other plants used throughout the three houses range from lilies and azaleas to paperwhites, amaryllis, and mini-evergreens.

The Elms Ballroom at Christmas.
The Elms Ballroom at Christmas.
Courtesy The Preservation Society of Newport County

And whether it's just a touch of garland on a mantle or an impressive network of trees, the holiday schemes compliment the decor and architecture of each room and house. “Take Marble House for example. The Gothic Room in has a tree that has all Gothic and Renaissance-inspired ornaments on it,” says Donahue. “The ballroom of Marble House is almost completely gilded, so we have a gilded tree—we want to enhance the quality of the tour guests take when they visit the mansions.”

Arguably the most iconic—and Instagrammed—interior from the mansions is the entrance hall of the Breakers. Every year, the space gets a 15-foot-tall tree made of approximately 150 real poinsettia plants, alongside other smaller trees—although the details are always subject to change.

The exterior of the Marble House at night.
The exterior of the Marble House at night.
Courtesy The Preservation Society of Newport County

Donahue keeps his eye out for new and interesting ornaments. While the feel of each room is similar every year, he’s constantly trying to edit and evolve what’s dressing the trees and mantles of the Newport mansions.

“The morning room at The Breakers has a snowflake and platinum theme,” he says. “If I happen to see a decoration appropriate for that room—be it platinum, or a snowflake that we don’t have—then I may retire something off of that tree and replace it with the new ornament!”

The Elms sitting room at Christmas.
The Elms sitting room at Christmas.
Courtesy The Preservation Society of Newport County

When it comes time to take the decorations down, many of the ornaments find off-season homes in odd corners of the mansions. “At The Breakers it’s in the attic; in Marble House it’s in the basement,” says Donahue. “Even some bedroom closets and bathrooms become storage spaces!” More high-value ornaments—the ones that get prime, outer-tree placement in the winter—are bubble wrapped and crated until next October.

But enough of the logistics. For Donahue—and likely for visitors as well—the Christmas decorations are at they're best when they're "strictly a fantasy."

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