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Gilded Age opportunity

Ornate Newport mansion placed on the auction block

Miramar, the onetime summer home of the Widener family, contains 30,000 square feet of limestone and marble opulence.
Miramar, the onetime summer home of the Widener family, contains 30,000 square feet of limestone and marble opulence. (Michele McDonald/ Globe Staff)

NEWPORT, R.I. -- For a house hunter with the means and motivation, it's a Gatsbyesque dream come true. A chance to own a trophy house from an era when majestic vacation homes symbolized more than sudden wealth and aristocrat owners thought nothing of inviting 500 friends over for cocktails and finger sandwiches.

The property, known as Miramar (Spanish for ``behold the sea"), occupies an 8-acre lot bordering Bellevue Avenue, Newport's fabled mansion row. Designed by Horace Trumbauer , architect of choice for America's turn-of-the-century plutocracy, it's a neoclassical symphony of sculpted limestone, marble floors, 16-foot ceilings, and beaux arts accents, 30,000 square feet of eye-popping opulence the likes of which have seldom been seen before or since.

How seldom? In Miramar's case, very.

Unlike most grand mansions built in Newport during the Gilded Age a century ago, this one has remained in private hands and thus off-limits to tour groups. But now it's on the auction block, fully furnished and ``as is." No restaurant-grade kitchen or tiered home theater. No master-suite spa or indoor swimming pool. But oodles of history and potential.

``A lot of people get to tour the mansions," notes Michael Fine of Sheldon Good & Co., the firm conducting the sealed-bid auction. ``But only one gets to say, `I own one. Would you like to come over for dinner?' "

Miramar's strongest appeal, according to Fine, is that while it lacks amenities most modern McMansions offer, there's space to do almost anything with it, whether one's tastes run to NBA-sized gymnasiums or antique car collecting.

``It's like buying a rare painting," says Fine, showing a reporter around Miramar prior to its being opened to prospective bidders. ``You can't push someone to appreciate this. They fall in love instantly or they don't. They're not asking how old the furnace is."

The auction, which concludes Nov. 3, covers three parcels: the main house, which sits on five lushly landscaped acres affording a breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean; a 6,000-square-foot carriage house, converted into four apartments and flanked by two tennis courts; and a buildable, 1-acre oceanfront lot dividing the other two properties.

Interested parties may tour and, if they put up 5 percent of the purchase price (escrowed and refundable), bid on any or all of the parcels. There is no floor to the bidding, according to Fine, and no obligation for the seller to accept the highest offer. The seller might be willing to take less money if it meant all three parcels went to the same bidder, keeping Miramar intact.

Given Miramar's unusual features and pedigree, however, finding any buyer may not be as simple as a stroll across its inlaid marble floors. The main house went on the market two years ago, priced at $25 million, and failed to sell.

Newport is not the celebrity or new-wealth magnet it once was, either, having long since been supplanted by the Nantuckets and East Hamptons of the East Coast. Because Miramar falls within the purview of Newport's' Historic District Commission, it can't be easily torn down to accommodate another architect's vision.

Nevertheless, says Fine, with the current owner ailing and motivated to sell, Miramar is expected to change hands by the end of the year.

The price could be surprisingly reasonable, too, considering Miramar's choice location. At least eight figures? ``I'd think so," Fine says, noting that properties like these are ``tremendously difficult" to price because normal factors like comparable sales and replacement costs don't readily apply.

According to the Newport tax assessor's office, only a small handful of high-end properties -- including Hammersmith Farm, where John and Jackie Kennedy were married -- have commanded sale prices in the $6 million to $10 million range over the past decade. Moreover, none purchased for residential use has boasted a Bellevue Avenue address.

One asset that cannot be precisely valued is Miramar's history. Built in 1913 and 1914 for transportation mogul George Widener and his wife, Eleanor, the estate was on the drawing boards when the Wideners sailed on the Titanic in 1912. George and his son Harry perished at sea -- Harry's book collection became the seed crop for Harvard University's Widener Library, also designed by Trumbauer -- but Eleanor survived.

After remarrying, to Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice , a Harvard geology professor, she proceeded with construction, which took two years and $1.5 million to complete: a princely sum for a house used two months a year.

According to John Tschirch , an architectural historian with the Preservation Society of Newport County, Miramar belongs to a group of about 20 Gilded Age mansions at the high end of the architectural pecking order. These museum-sized manses weren't merely reflections of their owners' wealth and social status, he says, but symbols of an America that had only recently become a world economic and cultural powerhouse and wasn't shy about advertising it.

``These homes were famous from the very moment they were built," says Tschirch. Whether grand or not, he adds, ``part of the American dream is defined by home ownership, and Newport represents a rather exalted view of that. People who tour these mansions say they're part of their heritage. They've become windows onto another age."

Vestiges of that bygone age include a massive walk-in safe, built to protect the family silver; a bronze fountain designed by famed French sculptor Henri Greber ; and a 10,000-bottle wine cellar housing two enormous cement tubs for icing down champagne.

Once the site of Newport's annual Tennis Ball, Miramar hosted 700 guests in 1955 for Dr. Rice's 80th birthday (Eleanor died in 1937), a last hurrah of sorts before it transitioned to institutional custody.

Following Rice's death, the estate passed to two Widener heirs, who in 1957 donated the property to the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island for a retreat and conference center. Seven years later, Miramar sold (for a modest $75,000 ) to a family that converted it into a girls' preparatory school.

In 1971, developer Andrew Panteleakis bought the property for $118,000 and began substantial renovations. In addition to using it as a residence, he converted a portion of the main house into corporate offices.

Twice last month and three times this month, Miramar will welcome potential bidders inside for a long look and a chance to dream about ownership. They may come from overseas, or Hollywood, or some newly minted dot-com dynasty. But they probably ought to have a little Gatsby in them, too.

``I've learned not to predict who falls in love with properties like these," says Fine, ``because buyers look so different from one to the next. Except for a certain level of wealth, of course."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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