The Caretaker of The Elms in Newport, Rhode Island
It’s all part of a morning routine that Mathews and his four-team staff embark on almost immediately upon arriving at the property at 7:00: opening windows, turning on fans, dry-mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, dusting mantels and furniture, even wiping down individual crystals that hang from the big chandeliers. All together, it’s a three-hour track meet to make sure the home is ready for its 10 o’clock opening, when the first of the day’s 1,100 visitors begin streaming into the grand entrance hall.
Of course, guests have long been a feature of The Elms. Its history goes back to the 1890s, when Edward Julius Berwind, a coal magnate out of New York and Philadelphia, and his wife, Sarah, commissioned the construction of a summer chateau modeled after an old French mansion. Finished in 1901 for $1.4 million, The Elms was spared little in the way of decadence. Whole rooms were designed around enormous pieces of art; the dining room alone boasts the largest collection of 18th-century Venetian paintings in America.
In the sun-drenched ballroom, a single elaborate crystal chandelier helps anchor the space, as does a gold-leaf grand piano. There’s a library, conservatory, and seven bedrooms, many of which open up to a wide, landscaped lawn filled out with fountains and flowerbeds. In the mansion’s basement, a small underground rail was constructed to truck in loads of coal from a station across the street. Even modern touches, including electricity and refrigeration, were added, making The Elms one of the first Newport homes to have such amenities. Money was no object for the Berwinds after the house was finished, either. It wasn’t unusual for the couple’s summer entertainment bill to top $300,000.
But by the early 1900s, this Gilded Age lavishness was closer to its end than its beginning. The Berwind family managed to hold on to The Elms until 1961, when it auctioned off most of the home’s art and furniture, then sold the mansion to an eager developer, who planned to tear it down and squeeze in a couple of houses or maybe a shopping center. Only a last-minute move by a few forward-thinking preservationists saved it. They bought the estate for $100,000, then donated it to the still relatively new Newport Preservation Society. Just three weeks after taking over The Elms, the Society opened the mansion to the public for tours.
At the time of Mathews’ arrival in 1983, The Elms was still in the throes of being returned to its turn-of-the-century glory. Sections of the building needed major work, decorative elements such as the silk wallpaper in Edward Berwind’s bedroom had yet to be repaired, and much of the original furniture and art pieces were slowly being bought back. Burglar and fire alarms hadn’t even been put in place. That responsibility fell on Mathews, who received a slight upgrade on his bedroom, moving to the other side of the home’s lower level, not far from the basement and the big oil furnaces.
“I remember taking dates down there,” he says. “I’d have a flashlight and I’d go, ‘Did you hear that?’ Then I’d shake the flashlight and they’d get nervous. Oh, boy, I used to have fun.” He pauses, then laughs. “I don’t think I got many second dates doing that.”
Today, the state of the home is a much different story. Almost all of the original art again hangs in the house. Much of the furniture has returned, too. It took five years, but the entire home has also been rewired, allowing the Society to finally install hardwired fire and burglar alarms. And Mathews, who eventually moved to the third-floor servants’ quarters, no longer resides at The Elms. When the Society launched a new “servant life tour,” he was relocated to a caretaker’s cottage, just down the street.
To watch Mathews work is to watch a man consumed with how The Elms is presented. He’s particular about where in the house the staff can drink their coffee in the morning, how those tricky upstairs bedroom windows are shut at the end of a summer day, and how the delicate chandelier crystals get wiped down. Even now, 12 years later, Mathews still shudders at the sight of a long scratch on the ballroom floor that a crew of careless movers made as they repositioned the piano. “Can you see that?” he asks, pointing to a faint mark on the floor. “I still go eh every time I look at that.”
His boss, Curt Genga, the Society’s director of properties, isn’t surprised. “You wind him up and point him in the right direction and he goes,” Genga says. “I’m constantly bringing new ideas to him. One time I told him that 3M had just come out with this new diamond pad and polish. We brought a guy in to show him how it worked [on the marble floors], and then I couldn’t stop him. I almost had to take it away from him.”
But there’s a complicated tension that surrounds Mathews’ work, a careful balancing act between taking care of the house and taking care of its visitors. That’s because what the house needs isn’t always what tourists desire. They want to pick up stuff they’re not supposed to touch. They want to wander into areas that are marked off-limits. One of the hardest changes for Mathews came about a little over a decade ago, when the Society shifted away from guided tours and let guests roam the home at their leisure with an audio device. “Now all of a sudden, they’re touching things,” Mathews says. “I remember seeing one guy in one of the bedrooms open up every drawer. They made that change in 2001, and I’m still not completely comfortable with it.”
At a mansion that for years employed local help, it seems appropriate that Mathews is now its caretaker. He grew up just a few blocks from the estate, one of eight kids in a bustling Italian American family. Although the mansions had faded from their past glory, their imprint on the community was impossible to ignore. Their history still helped define Newport’s identity, and their slow rebirth signaled Newport’s rebirth, from a harder-edged Navy town to a budding tourist stop.
For Mathews there were personal connections to The Elms as well. One of his clearest childhood memories is of taking a tour of the mansion with his mom when he was 8 years old. He marveled at the expansive backyard with its big statues, trees, and fountains. Inside, he ran his hands along the foyer’s breccia marble, mined in Italy.
In addition, his grandmother’s best friend was a woman named Betty White, who for years had worked as head laundress at The Elms. “She was always on her knees scrubbing floors and clothes,” Mathews says. “She later had bad knees and called them her ‘Elms knees.’”
But Mathews carries his own stories about The Elms as well. This is where, as a young, single father, he brought up his daughter. On the mansion’s third floor, they set up their bedrooms. In the evening, after the last of the visitors had left, father and daughter would run around the big lawn, cooling off from the hot summer day in one of the fountains. At night, Tara would tag along with her dad, helping him shut off all the lights. “Those were some of the best years of my life,” he says. “I have a whole photo album of her growing up here.”
That part of his life is repeating. Mathews is a single dad again, the father of two young boys, who live with him part-time. Like his daughter’s, their childhood is being shaped by The Elms. They play on the lawn, they swim in the fountains, they help their dad close up the mansion. The older boy, Julian, who’s 6—and a bit of a workhorse, his father says—constantly tells Mathews that he’d like to succeed him. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. A number of the Society properties are cared for by people whose fathers or mothers held the same positions before them.