The Caretaker of The Elms in Newport, Rhode Island
Yankee Plus Dec 2015
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Harold Mathews has been looking after The Elms, a 48-room Newport mansion, for 30 years.
It was supposed to be for only a couple of weeks.
That’s what Harold Mathews repeated to himself late one August evening in 1983 as he settled into his new bedroom. The setup was bare bones: small cot, tattered-looking reading light, in a tight little room that was desperate for a fresh coat of paint. The sparseness of his new sleeping quarters felt especially at odds with the house around him: a 48-room French chateau known as The Elms on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island. Spreading out some 60,000 square feet, the mansion featured rare Italian marble, lavish 18th-century artworks, and a grand ballroom that comfortably held 400 people.
But on that cool late-summer night, those extravagances mattered little to the 20-year-old Mathews. All he could think about was how dark the place got when he shut off his reading light. “Pitch, pitch black,” he says. “And I hate sleeping in the dark.”
Mathews, who’d previously owned a small fish market in Massachusetts, was there as a favor. He was in between jobs, and The Elms, a turn-of-the-century estate built by a coal magnate that came under ownership of the Newport Preservation Society in 1962, was in between caretakers. A friend had landed him a spot on the caretaking staff earlier in the summer. The season passed, the rest of the staff returned to college, and then, without much warning, Mathews’ boss left, too. The Society needed a fill-in until they could find a permanent replacement, and Mathews, the single father of a young girl and someone who’d called Newport home for much of his life, accepted the offer. He’d work for a few weeks, he reasoned, make a good paycheck, and then open that small fish market in Newport that he’d long talked about.
But one unexpected event can often lead to others. Mathews never did start his business. And he never did leave The Elms. After a couple of weeks on the job, the Society named him full-time caretaker. More than 30 years later, he’s still at it. It’s a career that has introduced him to celebrities, allowed him to learn the intricacies of getting a 60,000-square-foot house ready for a 600-person black-tie event, and for two decades permitted him to call the place his home.
For more than half his life, Mathews has cared for and cared about the old mansion, and he just might know it better than anyone. Historians can offer up precise details about the origins of the breccia marble in the main foyer, but it’s Mathews who can tell you how it should be cleaned. He can breezily wax on about how the place reacts on a scorching July day and what a bitter January weekend means for the heat bill. He tells about hunkering down in the house during a blizzard and how a big wind can make the ductwork howl like a ghost. “I’ve grown to love the place,” he says. “It’s an honor to be here, take care of it, and make sure it doesn’t get ruined.”
But all of that lay ahead of him as he settled into his first night at The Elms.
That August evening had started at around 5:30, when the last of the visitors left and Mathews made his first round to lock up the home’s 100 windows and take inventory of all the cleaning he’d have to do the next morning. In a house that had once employed 42 servants, Mathews was now its main set of eyes and ears. When he finished his round, he headed outside, hopped a big stone wall along the southwest side of the property, and walked the few blocks to his mom’s house for dinner. Over big plates of pasta they joked about the estate, about how the workers talked of seeing the ghosts of the old owners, about how dark the mansion became at night. “When I left, I told my mom, ‘We’ll see how it goes,’” Mathews says.
Back inside the mansion, Mathews walked the house one last time, then bounded downstairs, through the old kitchen and into the pantry, home to his makeshift bedroom, where he tucked himself into bed.
“I was never nervous or intimidated by the house,” he says. “But I do remember thinking, ‘Maybe I should stay in the fish business.’” Finally, sometime around 10:00, Mathews closed his eyes and managed to get some sleep, even in all that darkness. “The next morning, I got up, made my coffee, and started my day.” It’s been much the same ever since.
For most of us, a lightbulb change is a pretty menial task. For Harold Mathews, it can consume a good portion of the morning. It’s pushing close to 8:00 on an overcast mid-August day, and The Elms’ caretaker is already partially caffeinated and up on a ladder changing out one of the bulbs in a big light that hangs from a high ceiling in the main foyer. Lightbulb usage doesn’t indicate grandeur, but it can give you a pretty good idea of the size of an estate—and between the wall sconces, chandeliers, and other smaller lights, The Elms has more than a thousand of them. And every single day at least a handful of those bulbs need to be changed out. “I’m going to be doing this for a while,” Mathews says, teetering atop a 10-foot aluminum ladder.
He’s 50, but you’d hardly know it. He’s got a full head of black hair that he sweeps back, and a face that packs only as many wrinkles as a 25-year-old’s. He moves with purpose, his body bent slightly forward, with a walk that puts him up on the balls of his feet as he dashes from room to room, floor to floor. He’s constantly scrubbing his work of inefficiencies and takes pride in being able to shut down the second floor (lights turned off, windows shut) in just five minutes. On this morning he’s wearing blue jeans and an orange-collared short-sleeve shirt, which he’ll eventually change out of because it’s become too sweaty.
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