The Caretaker of The Elms in Newport, Rhode Island
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.
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.