Last Updated on August 11, 2023

One of the most extensive and complicated projects in the history of the Preservation Society of Newport County is nearing completion. On September 1, 2023, the Rosecliff mansion restoration in Newport, RI will open to visitors for the first time since January 2, 2023, providing a sparkling setting for the exhibition “The Celestial City: Newport and China,” and, later in September, the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival.

Highlights of this $7-million Rosecliff mansion restoration project include:

  • Replacement of the 5,000-square-foot roof with a new 30-year roofing system with a 90-millimeter-thick rubber membrane. The wooden roof planking under the old rubber membrane was carefully inspected and replaced where necessary before the new membrane was installed.
  • Replacement of all 600 linear feet of the ornate balustrade that runs around the perimeter of the roof. This was a complex task done in stages, beginning with the creation of a 20-foot cast stone mockup of a section of balustrade to guide the prefabrication of all balustrade components. At each stage, a section of balustrade was removed, then the curb on which the balustrade is anchored was removed and rebuilt. New balustrade was then secured to the curb.
  • Construction of a new 3,200-square-foot Ballroom floor, composed of 305 white oak 3-foot-by-3-foot panels, that exactly replicates the original floor. The panels were fabricated onsite.
  • Steam-cleaning of all exterior marble and terra cotta surfaces.
  • Stripping and repainting of all windows, with new textiles for the ballroom windows, and a new protective film coating applied to all windows on the ocean side of the house.
  • Restoration of all front doors, including gilding.
  • Repointing of exterior terra cotta tiles.
  • The sandblasting and painting of all exterior wrought iron.
  • The cleaning of basins in the front and back fountains followed by the application of a new five-coat waterproofing system.
  • The rebuilding of the exterior back stairs.
  • Restoration of the central garden in the front of the house.
  • The repointing, cleaning and painting of the perimeter wall running the length of the property bordering the Cliff Walk, and the rebuilding of the service pit walls.
  • Cleaning and repointing of statue bases.

A Brief History of Rosecliff

Commissioned by silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs in 1899, architect Stanford White modeled Rosecliff after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of French kings at Versailles. After the house was completed in 1902, at a reported cost of $2.5 million, Mrs. Oelrichs hosted fabulous entertainments, including a fairy tale dinner and a party featuring famed magician Harry Houdini.

“Tessie,” as she was known to her friends, was born in Virginia City, Nevada. Her father, James Graham Fair, was an Irish immigrant who made an enormous fortune from Nevada’s Comstock silver lode, one of the richest silver finds in history.

During a summer in Newport, Theresa met Hermann Oelrichs playing tennis at the Newport Casino. They were married in 1890. A year later, they purchased the property known as Rosecliff from the estate of historian and diplomat George Bancroft.

Bancroft was an amateur horticulturist who grew thousands of roses at Rosecliff. His gardens along the Cliff Walk were famous.

The Oelrichs later bought additional property along Bellevue Avenue and commissioned Stanford White to replace the original house with the mansion that stands today.

Rosecliff is now preserved through the generosity of its last private owners, Mr. and Mrs. J. Edgar Monroe of New Orleans. They gave the house, its furnishings and an endowment to the Preservation Society in 1971.

Rosecliff mansion restoration new ballroom floor.
Rosecliff mansion restoration new ballroom floor. Photo courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County.

With its celebrated heart-shaped grand staircase and the largest ballroom in Newport, this elegant mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean recalls lost Gilded Age summers filled with extravagant parties like the one featured in 1974’s “The Great Gatsby,” for which scenes were filmed. Scenes from several other films have also been shot on location at Rosecliff, including “True Lies,” “Amistad” and “27 Dresses.”

The Preservation Society of Newport County

The Preservation Society of Newport County is a nonprofit organization accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. It is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the area’s historic architecture, landscapes, decorative arts and social history.

Its 11 historic properties – seven of them National Historic Landmarks – span more than 250 years of American architectural and social development.

Author