2018-11-08 / Around Town

In Our Own Backyard

By Rona Mann

Harold Mathews, caretaker at The Elms for 35 years checks on the condition of the mansion inside and out. (Photos by Jen Carter) Harold Mathews, caretaker at The Elms for 35 years checks on the condition of the mansion inside and out. (Photos by Jen Carter) It’s been said that millions of New York City residents have never visited the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building or the United Nations.

Then there’s Newport.

Here, the world-famous mansions attract nearly 500,000 visitors each year who are anxious to steep themselves in history and who yearn to be a part of the Gilded Age, if only for an afternoon, and to tour and marvel at the exquisite architecture and design not readily found elsewhere. Yes, tourists come from thousands of miles away, yet there are many Newport residents who also enjoy the mansions that are right around the corner.

Newport This Week sat down with two employees of The Preservation Society of Newport County, the nonprofit that preserves and protects the historic properties of Aquidneck Island, chief among them those popular mansions on Bellevue Avenue, to learn about these gems in our midst.

Both men whom we spoke with have different responsibilities, yet both share a deep connection to the history and beauty that surrounds them daily. They are proud of the work they do to showcase these properties and fiercely protective of the properties’ place in history.

Harold Mathews, head caretaker at The Elms for 35 years, is a native son. His mother was born in Newport and his grandmother, Rosie Nelson, was well known in the community. “She owned Rosie’s Grocery, and everybody in Newport knew that place and her,” he said.

As a young child, he was often brought to the mansions by his mother and grandmother. When Mathews was a few years older, he secured a part-time summer job at The Elms that eventually led to the full-time caretaker’s position after just a few weeks... and it’s lasted for more than 35 years.

Has Mathews seen many changes in all that time?

“Yes, I have, he said, “and all for the better. We now have a lot more areas open to the public that they can tour, from the coal tunnel to the rooftop.”

Mathews is also relieved that the properties have now changed to LED light bulbs. “The Elms has 1,500 light bulbs, and every day I had a bunch to change. Now, with LED, that rarely happens,” he said with a grateful smile.

Brett DePaola has been with the Preservation Society for nearly six years and is now admissions supervisor. The former New Jersey resident is in charge of a staff that sells the tickets at each mansion.

“I used to go to the art museum in Philadelphia frequently and originally thought I wanted to be an architect,” he said. “In time I realized I was more interested in the history of buildings than the building of them, so I went to Roger Williams University.

“It didn’t matter what class I took, it seemed as though we always came to Newport for something. I fell in love with Chateau-sur-Mer and especially the Isaac Bell House, so it was natural for me to live here and want to work here.”

The society is a nonprofit with a $25 million annual budget, with support coming strictly from donors, special events and, most of all, tourists.

“More than 40 percent comes from tourists,” said DePaola. “We are trying hard to become a year-round destination for them,” he added. “The first six weeks of the new year are always the slowest, but the MLK long holiday weekend falls in there, so we do very well.”

Although 400 employees, 100 of them full time, work for the Society, Andrea Carneiro, communications manager, says they are always looking for new people. “It’s a great place to work,” she said.

Newport residents can visit any of the properties free of charge throughout the year. There are also four weekends set aside annually in which the six communities that comprise Newport County can do the same.

“We also have periodic receptions throughout the year in which we invite our neighbors to one of the properties to meet the staff and come enjoy some time with us,” said Carneiro.

Since 1948, when tourism first began to flourish in Newport, Carneiro estimates that 25 million people have toured the historic properties, which have not changed except for needed improvements and restoration in order to perpetuate preservation.

“We all feel fortunate to work at these extraordinary properties,” Mathews said. “If you don’t know about them and haven’t been here, you’ve got to be hiding under a rock. It’s right in your own backyard.”

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