Have you visited Rough Point? The home of Doris Duke, heiress to a fortune and colonial Newport’s most famous benefactor, sits at the end of that millionaire’s mile, Bellevue Avenue, overlooking the majesty of the Atlantic. Rock cliffs, glistening waters, blue skies and gentle breezes are the backdrop for Frederick Law Olmstead’s landscape and the manorial home built for a Vanderbuilt. Doris’ father purchased the home in 1922, renovated it, and died shortly after, leaving his estate and millions to his 12 year old daughter. Since her mother, wealthy in her own right, would probably remarry, Doris’ father made sure his daughter was personally provided for, for life. Was she ever. Despite having never attended college, she proved quite capable of managing her affairs, properties and fortune.
Her life story is the stuff of movies – from a failed first marriage to a failed but glamorous second – she was a world traveler, collector, philanthropist. Her summer home, Rough Point, was donated to the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1999, an organization she founded, and is open for tours in summer. The tour is a walk through her story and history. Her collections of art and antiques are placed artfully, and comfortably, throughout the home, the perfect background as the guide weaves you through the many rooms and stories of her life. From the drawing room to the solarium where Doris entertained locals like Jackie Kennedy, and enjoyed the company of her pets, from a dozen rescued dogs to a few camels (yes camels!), every room in the house is both a surprise and a delight.
At first arrival, as you drive into the driveway to the parking area, you are greeted by two topiary camels. They represent the real ones that once roamed the grounds, gifts from a Saudi billionaire. As we parked, a couple was returning to their car next to us, both insisting adamantly that this was the best of all the mansions they’d visited. We were excited to hear that. While waiting for the tour to begin, we roamed the grounds. Breathtaking. The only negative for these mansion-owners is the Cliff Walk. While great for the rest of us to be able to walk the entire point and share their grand views, it has always been an intrusion for the residents. Somehow, they manage.
While other mansions can feel palatial and ostentatious, this one, despite its size, feels homey. Perhaps because Ms. Duke actually used it regularly, up until her death in 1993.
Meanwhile, nearby Newport was crumbling. The neighborhood around the working wharves had become a place that the well heeled would avoid. Dickensian streets with crooked buildings and broken brick chimneys, stood in contrast to the Gilded Age palaces. Settled by Baptists, Portuguese Jews and Quakers – now there’s an exciting and unique history to explore – Newport was the first capitol of Rhode Island. Its history is fascinating, from whaling port to pirates, marble mansions to Jack and Jackie, from decline to restoration, from colonial to palatial, this city’s diverse history can be read at every corner. One could spend years discovering it – and it would be worth it. And it is all thanks to Doris Duke’s vision to restore that city, house by crumbling house. You can find all the info on Newport’s restoration at the Newport Restoration Foundation’s site, and in their book – Extraordinary Vision: Doris Duke and the Newport Restoration Foundation.
Put Rough Point on your list of places to visit next spring, and Hunter House, and have chowder at the Black Pearl on Bannister’s wharf, enjoy a harbor cruise in the afternoon, and dinner at the White Horse Tavern. And if there’s room, the Viking Hotel – it’ll be one terrific weekend!