Beechwood, the Mrs. Astor's 39-room Italianate mansion in Newport, Rhode Island and one of the last great relics of the Gilded Age, is now being offered for sale for $14.9 million. The 19,000-sq.-ft., 15-bedroom house on Newport's famous Bellevue Avenue, was listed at $16 million last year (as my colleague Deidre Woollard reported) and has since served as a "living history museum" showing what life was like for the Gilded Age idle rich before they were forced to sell off their mansions.
The museum is a bit cheesy, with events like "An Evening With the Astors", but Beechwood does have a very rich history. In fact, with the $1.1 million discount it might even be something of a bargain. Cole Porter was said to have written Night and Day, one of his most famous songs, while visiting Beechwood, and the house also made an appearance in the 1956 Bing Crosby / Frank Sinatra / Grace Kelly movie High Society. Originally constructed in 1851 by Calvert Vaux - co-designer of Central Park - and Andrew Jackson Downing for drygoods magnate Daniel Parish, it was on the market when well-bred debutante Caroline Schermerhorn married billionaire merchant William Backhouse Astor Jr., giving the Astors some much needed social cachet.
Gallery: Mrs. Astor's Beechwood
Mr. Astor owned the Ambassadress, the largest private yacht in the world at the time, and a beautiful Hudson River mansion called Ferncliff. "The Mrs. Astor" as she soon insisted upon being referred to, intended to entertain in grand style with her husband's money and needed a Newport mansion in which to do it during the summer season, which lasted for eight precious weeks. The Astors bought the place in 1881 and spent $2 million on improvements, including the addition of a mirrored waterfront ballroom by architect Richard Morris Hunt (who designed the Fifth Avenue facade of Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art) complete with bas reliefs depicting Poseidon and Aphrodite.
Mrs. Astor soon became the reigning queen of New York society, and her Summer Ball at Beechwood was the highlight of the season. She and social arbiter Ward McAllister then founded the famous "Four Hundred", referring to the strictly limited number of socially acceptable families (i.e. not nouveau riche) in New York - which some people are still trying to get into. Her son, John Jacob Astor IV, who inherited Beechwood, later went down on the Titanic, the ship's wealthiest passenger.