Mansion Mayhem #1: Eclectic Doris Duke and Rough Point

Image 2Today was the kickoff for another one of my summer challenges: Mansion Mayhem. For Mansion Mayhem, I’m trying to visit the Newport Mansions which I have yet to see or haven’t seen in a long time. The first installment in this series brought me to a mansion I’d never been to and had only heard about for the first time recently. This mansion is not part of the Preservation Society of Newport County, which cares for mansions like the Breakers and Rosecliff. Instead, this mansion is under the maintenance and care of the Newport Restoration Foundation, founded by the owner of the mansion I’ll be talking about, Doris Duke.

Doris was the heiress to the Duke family fortune which was built on the tobacco industry. The house, Rough Point, was originally owned by the Vanderbilt family, but the Duke family eventually acquired it for Doris’s summer “cottage” (I kid you not, this is the term that the people who summered here used for their Newport mansions).

Rough Point is built in the manorial style, and while walking around inside, it definitely feels like the house could be an English or Scottish manor. The first room we entered definitely evokes that feeling with the wooden paneled walls covered in Belgian tapestries, and with massive antlers above the doors.  There’s a lot more wood inside than many of the other Newport mansions, and the house’s Great Hall in particular evokes images of Windsor Castle with flags hanging from the walls and portraits placed throughout. The Duke family made significant changes to the house’s internal architecture as they added a grander main staircase as the previous staircase wasn’t as ornamental, typical of the house’s original style. They also installed marble floors and plaster ceilings to give the house an airier feel, befitting a house on the ocean.

I couldn’t take any pictures inside, so I’ll do my best to explain some of what you see as there’s a lot packed into the tour. For one, the house is filled with artistic treasures: James Duke, Doris’s father, was quite skilled when it came to acquiring artistic masterpieces, and the house is filled with French furniture, Portuguese needlepoint rugs, gothic Belgian tapestries, a Spanish fireplace, Ming Dynasty ceramics, and even a catching pot from the Christmas Tree Shop. While Doris was extremely wealthy and a patron of the arts and music, she was also quite odd. Our tour guide made it clear that a lot of things in the house are located where they are because that’s where they’re supposed to be located (they say the house is in the same condition that Duke left it in in the 1990s). So, Duke mixed Italian paintings with a $1.50 pot from the Christmas tree shop, or her ornate furniture in her bedroom with dust ruffles from J.C. Penny. Despite all of the money she put into the house, she could be quite thrifty in some other ways. Regardless of her eclectic  habits and style, it’s hard to not be stunned by all of the art she acquired.

Doris was also less of an entertainer in the classic Newport society sense than her mother. Her mother, Nanaline Inman, had a ballroom added to the house to entertain guests, and had four bed and bathrooms built on the floor above it to house more visitors. Doris, on the other hand, converted the ballroom into the music room which she invited performers from the Newport Jazz Festival to play at, as she was one of its early benefactors. Additionally, her dining room table seated only eight while her mother’s seated about forty.

Topiary camels to commemorate Doris's pets
Topiary camels to commemorate Doris’s pets

Doris’s house is certainly beautiful and worth the visit, but some of the stories about her life are just as interesting. If you talk to somebody who lived in Newport when she was around, you’re bound to hear odd stories about her. She traveled the world extensively, had about twelve pet dogs, two pet camels (Princess and Baby), and really did what she wanted when she wanted. There’s currently an exhibit showing some of her wardrobe which includes rhinestoned jeans that she wore when she was seventy.

Image 3Admission also allows you to see the grounds on your own, which are worth exploring. My sister and I had some time to kill before our tour began, so we walked around the gardens and sat in the sun in front of the house for a little bit. The view of the ocean is incredible from the back, and it’s a good place to relax for a bit if you have the chance.


Image 1

Overall, the mansion is absolutely worth visiting. It’s a little bit off the traditional circuit of the Breakers and Marble House, and admission is pretty steep at $25 a person. You must visit the house on a tour led by a docent, and they leave every hour on the half hour. Our tour guide Barbara was incredible and knew anything we could have wanted to know about the house. Having a tour guide is also good because it’s a lot more personal than just listening to an audio guide, and the tour guide can cater the visit to what the guests seem most interested in. If you have the chance, visit Rough Point for sure. Although admission is steep, I still think the house is incredible, unique, and something absolutely worth seeing for a different spin on Newport mansions and society. 10/10!

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