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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ocean View: How the Millses Summered in Style in Newport

There is something extraordinary about the sea and the summer season is a great time to enjoy the salty tides and coastal views far away from the bustle of the city.  Staatsburgh was generally quiet during the summer because the Mills family was usually headquartered in Newport, Rhode Island.  Newport was the center of the summer season for wealthy Gilded Age families. The elite flocked to the ocean breezes and built grand mansions along the shore.  The young Ruth Livingston spent summers as a young lady in Newport at her parent's cottage on Bellevue Court and even served as a bridesmaid at her twin sister's wedding to Englishman George Cavendish-Bentinck at the Episcopal Chapel of All Saints, which was one of the most anticipated events of the 1880 season.  Once Ruth married Ogden Mills, they visited Newport each summer and rented a home where they would reside during their time there until they purchased Ocean View in 1888.

As a port city on the Atlantic Ocean, Newport was the center for the New England slave trade during the Colonial era until the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807.  Soon wealthy Southern plantation owners began to build summer homes in Newport to escape the heat and by the middle of the nineteenth century wealthy Yankee families began to do the same.  Most of the homes built during this era were shingle style cottages.  By the 1880's, the Newport season began to get longer, beginning in May and ending in October for some families, and the number of cottages occupied each summer continued to increase through the decade.  By this time, the style of the homes had changed, and most of the large mansions were built with marble and resembled prodigious European palaces (see Marble House).

On Right: Ocean View, the Ogden Mills Newport Mansion
located on Bellevue Avenue, circa 1932-34
Source: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University

Newport was also the location of many milestones for the Mills family because all three of Ruth and Ogden's children were born there.  In 1883, Ruth & Odgen Mills rented a cottage from Gordon McKay on Marine Avenue and it was there that Mrs. Mills gave birth on June 19 to twin girls.  About 6 weeks after the birth, Jane Beatrice and Elizabeth Gladys were christened at All Saints Memorial Chapel with a breakfast held at the cottage immediately after the christening.  The New York Times dubbed the christening entertainment, "a brilliant affair."  

The following year the Mills rented the Tucker Cottage from Cornelius Vanderbilt.  It has since been demolished, but an image is available here and here.  After renting Newport homes owned by the McKay, Van Alen, and Vanderbilt families, in 1887 the Mills began renting a home owned by Charles L. Anthony, a New York City merchant and father of Mrs. Frederick Vanderbilt who was a close friend of Ruth and Ogden.  After several years of renting the home, the Mills family decided to purchase it in 1888 and it remained in the family until 1934.  The home, named "Ocean View" was on Bellevue Avenue and the cliffs.

Ocean View was originally built in 1866 for William H. Reynolds in the Second Empire French style, which was most popular among architectural style of Newport cottages during this era.   The architect, William Russell Walker (1830-1905), who was responsible for many government buildings in Providence, designed the home.  The house had a wood frame and a stucco exterior and the rear of the estate overlooked the Cliff Walk.  It resembled a seaside cottage, which was a contrast to the marble palaces that many uber-wealthy families began to build in the 1890s (For example: The Breakers & Marble House).

On Left: Ocean View, the Ogden Mills Newport Mansion located on Bellevue Avenue, circa 1932-34
Source: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
A current view of the Cliff Walk
(Source: http://www.newportout.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/cliff_walk_3.jpg) 

After the Mills family purchased the house in 1888 for $95,000, they planned extensive renovations and made sure the house would be an excellent place to entertain during the summer season.  In 1889, they decided to spend the summer in London and let the estate to Mr. Ogden Goelet whose own estate, Ochre Court, was under construction and would not be ready until the following year.  Once the season ended, renovations began so the cottage would be complete for summer 1890.  The next year Ruth gave the first evening cotillion of the season, which was her first party in several years, after spending time in mourning after the deaths of her father and Ogden's mother in 1888.  Sixty couples attended and received favors that included scarf pins and penholders for the men and fans for the ladies.  The villa was decorated with tropical plants and after supper, guests danced the night away to the Hungarian Band.

The location of Ocean View on Bellevue Avenue in relation to other estates.  Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt's Newport estate, Rough Point, was directly south of Rock Cliff - Google Maps

There was some talk in the newspapers in 1903 that Ruth and Ogden were planning to sell Ocean View and buy a more modern home better-suited to entertaining.  By this time, Ocean View was considered a bit old-fashioned compared to the newer and grander homes built in Newport during the last decade.  It was not well-suited for the scale of entertaining that Ruth desired.  The rumor (according to the New York Times) was that the Millses would purchase Rough Point, the Frederick Vanderbilt home, which Mr. Vanderbilt was willing to sell if his price were met.  Rough Point was built in 1887 and when it was completed, it was the largest house in Newport to date.  It would be much more suited for entertaining on a grand scale.  Yet, for a reason currently unknown to us, the Millses never purchased Rough Point and Ocean View remained under Mills ownership during Ruth and Ogden's lifetime.  Frederick Vanderbilt did sell Rough Point in 1906, but to a man named William Leeds known as the "Tin Plate King."  Perhaps the Mills and Vanderbilt families felt it wise to maintain a friendship without the tension that often accompanies business or real estate transactions.

Newport was a place for summer leisure and sporting.  Gladys, one of Ruth and Ogden's twin daughters, even won a golfing contest held in 1907.  She bested both men and women including her sister Beatrice.  Ruth and Ogden's only son, Ogden Livingston Mills, was in the paper for playing both doubles tennis and polo one July weekend in 1905.  The Newport Casino (which now houses the International Tennis Hall of Fame) was a popular location for tennis tournaments.  The most popular summer activity in Newport, however, was yachting and Mr. Mills once challenged a friend, Henry Walters, to race their yachts from New York to Newport.  The race began on a Friday evening at the New York Yacht Club and ended on Saturday morning in Newport.  The Narada, Mr. Walters' yacht, defeated the Surf, Mr. Mills' yacht, by 15 minutes and Mr. Mills presented him with a silver cup.  Such leisure entertainments were common during the Newport season.

After Ogden Mills passed away in 1929, his son Ogden Livingston Mills, then the Undersecretary of the Treasury, inherited Ocean View.  Not long after, he decided to sell the home and it was purchased by the architect C. Matthews Dick from Washington in 1934.  Dick was the son of A.B. Dick from Chicago who created the term mimeograph and trademarked it.  A.B. Dick originally started a lumber company in 1883, but the company soon expanded to office supplies and copiers.  Mr. and Mrs. C. Matthews Dick used the house for many years to entertain.  They subsequently divorced and after he passed away, the house was utilized by their children and today the Dick family still owns the property, but the original house tragically burned down in 1983.  The entire house was a loss, but firemen were able to save some of the priceless artifacts inside.  The Dick family rebuilt the house and attempted to keep as much of the original structure as possible.  It is still possible to view the home from the Cliff Walk behind the property, but it remains a private residence.  Several other homes are available to tour and provide an excellent window into Newport life for the elite during the Gilded Age.

A present day bird's eye view of Ocean View (top), which was rebuilt after the fire in 1983. (Bing maps)

Newport has one of the greatest concentrations of Gilded Age mansions that are open to the public for tours. If you are thinking about planning a trip, visit the Preservation Society of Newport County or the Newport Restoration Foundation to learn about the mansions open for tours.

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