Backstory and Context
In the historic Bellevue Avenue neighborhood, there sits a grand mansion modeled after the French royal retreat, Versailles. It was built on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean in 1899 by a silver heiress named Theresa Fair Oelrichs and her husband Hermann.
Theresa Fair Oelrichs, also known as “Tessie,” was born in Virginia City, Nevada during its boomtown years. The town grew after her father and his partners found silver in the nearby mines in the late 1850s. Theresa’s father was James Graham Fair, an immigrant from Belfast that found one of the richest silver lodes in history. He made his fortune mining silver in Nevada. When Theresa was just a child, her parents divorced, and Theresa, her sister Virginia, and brother Charlie lived with their mother. They continued to live a luxurious life. She was eighteen years old when she went to Newport for a summer and met her future husband, Hermann Oelrichs, who was playing tennis at the Newport Casino. They married in 1890. A year later, they purchased the Rosecliff property from the estate of George Bancroft, a prominent American historian. The young couple decided to replace the original house with the mansion that stands today.
The home was designed and built by architect Stanford White. White modeled the home after the Grand Trainon at Versailles in France. Rosecliff’s outer walls are constructed of brick and completed with a façade of white, terra-cotta tile. The terra cotta and glazed finish give the impression that the home is made of marble.
It took three years to complete the home and its construction cost about $2.5 million. Mrs. Oelrichs was so excited about her new summer home that she was hosting parties before it was even finished. Her parties were some of the most extravagant galas thrown in Newport at the time. She hosted a variety of themed parties such as a fairy tale dinner and an all-white ball (the “Bal Blanc”). Oelrichs even had the famed Harry Houdini at one of her revelries to entertain the guests. At the famous “Bal Blanc,” everything was decorated in white and all guests were instructed to come dressed in white (including their hair, which was to be powdered white). She ordered a dozen full-sized skeleton ships with white hulls to be anchored in the water near the home. The boats were lit up to make it look like there was a full white fleet anchored outside Rosecliff during this extraordinary bash.
After her husband abandoned her, Mrs. Oelrichs spent her final days roaming the mansion, welcoming and seating her imagined party guests. She passed away in 1926. Her son, Hermann Oelrichs Jr., inherited the house upon her death and lived there with his family until 1941. The home transferred ownership several times over the next few years. The last private owners, Mr. and Mrs. J. Edgar Monroe (of New Orleans), gave the home and all of its furnishings to the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1971. The Preservation Society opens the home for tours several times throughout the year. It is also available for the public’s use as a venue for weddings and other events.
The Adventures of Tessie. New York Social Diary. August 30, 2007. Accessed January 21, 2018. http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/social-history/2007/the-adventures-of-tessie.
Niewenhous, Matthew J. Rosecliff- Newport, Rhode Island. The Gilded Butler. January 11, 2015. Accessed January 21, 2018. https://thegildedbutler.com/2015/01/03/rosecliff-newport-rhode-island/.