Inside Wealth

A new Gilded Age for Newport? Mansions in demand

Wildacre in Newport, R.I.
Source: Sotheby's

Before the Hamptons became "The Hamptons," Newport was the summertime playground of the rich.

The Astors, the Vanderbilts and Edith Wharton all descended on the famous sailing town for socializing and climbing. They were followed by JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Doris Duke, and Claus and Sunny von Bulow.

But during the Second Gilded Age of the 1990s and 2000s, Newport seemed to get left behind. Its aging oceanfront estates became museums and the objects of "mansion tours" for gawking visitors.

But now, Newport may be regaining its shine. Last week, the estate known as Wildacre sold for $14 million, making it the third most expensive home ever sold in town. The property, sold by Campbell Soup heiress Dorrance Hamilton, has a 14-room mansion built in 1902 for Albert Olmsted, the brother of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park.

The rise of move-in ready mansions

The most expensive home ever sold in Newport was Miramar, the 27-bedroom oceanfront mansion that in 2006 went for $17.2 million. The estate called Hopedene sold for $16 million last year.

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Wildacre has an 8,180 square-foot shingled mansion, with classic peaks and gables. It sits on 2.5 acres overlooking Price's Neck Cove and the Atlantic. The house was originally listed at $15.75 million.

Newport is once again catching the eye of wealthy buyers, said Paul A. Leys, co-owner of Gustave White Sotheby's International Realty in Newport, which listed Wildacre. Sales of homes priced at $5 million or more hit a record last year—topping the precrisis peak by more than 50 percent. Total sales volume was up 10 percent in the second quarter compared with last year.

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Wealthy buyers are finding much better value in Newport than in Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and the Hamptons, Leys said.

"Their money goes a lot further here," he said.

While there had been a perception that Newport was a bastion of old money, "we're seeing a lot of newer money come in."

Larry Ellison, for instance, bought the Astor's mansion, called Beechwood, and is restoring it to become the Beechwood Museum. The building plans suggest Ellison would maintain a private residence on the upper floors and use the rest to house his collection of 18th and 19th century art.

"He's doing an incredible amount of work on the property," Leys said. "It's going to be beautiful."

—By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter @robtfrank.