The Elms behind-the-scenes tour

Some inside shots of the "secret spaces"

The Elms offers "behind the scenes" tours of some normally off-limits spaces for an additional fee.
Being habitually interested in the underlying infrastructure of things, our group signed up for it.

Click any picture for its somewhat larger (640 x 480) version.

The tour begins in the servants' areas, with the premise that we'll now see some of the house from the point of view of its support staff. Are we ready to go to work??

First stop, laundry area next door to the kitchens. With the residents and guests changing outfits five or more times per day, bedding at least daily, in addition to the uniforms worn by the 40 or so support staff, that's a lot of laundry to do. Astoundingly, it was all done in the pair of sinks at the back of this room, using a washboard, bar soap, and a roll wringer. Nearby there's a collection of weirdly-shaped ironing boards for pressing and reshaping complex garment contours, and a collection of irons including one of the earliest electric types. All essentially done by hand.

Down to the sub-basement and boiler room. Far and away the most fascinating area of the tour, except that we couldn't see all of it. The black pit going off behind the staircase is an access gallery running under the entire length of the house which would have been great to haul out the flashlights and take a run through, but the guide wouldn't let us in there.

One important task in the early days of electrification was to go around the house every day and check light bulbs and replace burnt-out ones. As part of a small workshop area in the boiler-room space, this cabinet has an assortment of original lamp types in their original boxes, and the funny V-shaped rig on the cabinet door is a lamp tester of some sort, bringing AC power to a set of contacts across which a lamp could be connected to test for a good filament.

Water heater tanks

The coal storage room at the southern end of the house, under the conservatory, and the beginning of the delivery tunnel that runs under the property all the way out to a hatch beyond the perimeter wall on Dixon St. The tunnel has coal carts on rails to shuttle the loads in and move them over toward the boilers. Unfortunately one of the old carts [that doesn't roll very well anymore] is parked right in the end of the tunnel here, blocking access into it.

This was one of many aspects of the design of The Elms to completely hide any aspects of the house's operation from the residents and guests -- keeping most servants and all service facilties and infrastructure out of sight, underground or under thick wisteria arbors, and sequestered in special gallery areas.

[It's hard to understand how simply being filthy rich could so completely remove anyone's awareness or curiosity about how things really function, whether in a contrived sense or more genuine disinterest, but apparently that was a prerequisite for being a proper and accepted member of high society at the time.]

The boilers themselves. Coal hoppers could be rolled along the edge of the two-foot depression that the boilers actually sit in, making it easier to shovel from the hoppers into the boilers' insatiable maws without having to lift the weight any appreciable distance.

It's nice to see that a little thought was given to heat conservation, with the layer of insulation over each unit. That may be more recent, though.

Back upstairs one level: the laundry drying room. Fed by boiler heat and its own auxiliary stove, this room had clotheslines stretched across it and likely spent a lot of time being very warm and humid. Laundry needed to be turned around fairly quickly and tumble dryers were still a long way off, so hanging in a hot place was about the fastest drying method available.

As the room no longer houses that kind of artificial climatic disaster, its back corner is also being used as a temporary restoration studio for working on some of the wall panels and interior fittings. And the baskets and trunks are some original travel luggage of the era, simply being stored here for now.

A primitive ice-making chest. This early experiment in ammonia-based refrigeration was able to freeze blocks of ice right here in-house instead of having them delivered, and they could then be loaded into traditional iceboxes. The innards are *very* rusty now and don't help reveal much about how the machine worked, but it was innovative for its time.

Food storage was done both in the usual iceboxes of the time and a little later on, in some of the earlier models of closed-loop refrigerators.

Wine cellar, built just outside the foundation wall with earth over the top for good thermal stability. It has very small windows open to the outside, and the door into it was alarmed back in the day since the contents would be quite the theft target. Most of the wealthy houses continued to have well-stocked wine cellars right through the Prohibition era.

Back into the kitchen, but on the other side of the barrier ropes for a closer look at the stove and big copper pots. Our guide had us heft one; they're quite heavy.

Next, a trek all the way up to the third floor to the servants' quarters. Functional but comparatively spartan rooms line a central hallway down both sides, with a few shared bathrooms -- basically a dormitory. None of the ornateness downstairs appears here, but the woodwork is solid and tastefully done. The beds are simple steel frames with whatever the reasonable mainstream mattress technology was at a given time.

The room windows look out onto the back of the roofline statuary, up on top of a perimeter wall.

That's not all that looks toward the outside; the camera covers the steps up to a small observation deck we'd eventually get out to. Yes, there are security cameras everywhere in all the mansions.

One of the rooms is occupied by two huge water reserve tubs, sitting up on big I-beams which must be set into some pretty serious load-bearing parts of the house structure. This was so the house could have its own backup water supply for cleaning and/or fire suppression; not sure on drinking quality. The ladder goes up to the top edge of one of the tubs.

The bathrooms are unexpectedly well-outfitted. No showers, however.

Up a couple of steps and out a door at the end of the hall, and we're on the roof. First thing to confirm is that the perimeter wall really does run continuously all the way around the entire "doghouse" of the servants' quarters at this level. Again, by design -- to keep the servants invisible including to anyone who might be strolling the back lawn and happen to look up at the house, but still give those living areas plenty of natural light.

The slate shingles are likely original, although the mounting hardware and materials used [esp. in repairs] are modern.

Up the little scaffold steps, and we get a view out over the lawn and the rest of Newport. Servants obviously wouldn't be doing this...

The statuary is carved as though it would be viewed from any angle, not just from below on the Elms grounds, and is all anatomically correct even on the backside. Evidently a reporter took this tour once and then wrote about the "best buns in Newport" being right here. One has to wonder how the service staff felt with these figures shooting them a perpetual moon.

And as with all such tourism, the inevitable exit is through the gift shop in the hope that you'll buy stuff. Like, who knows, coffee-table books with some photos of the insides of the mansions or something.

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