John Davison Rockefeller Jr. arrived in RI from his home in NY on Oct. 8, 1901. Along with relatives and 15 security guards, he would be spending the night at the Narragansett Hotel where he had …
John Davison Rockefeller Jr. arrived in RI from his home in NY on Oct. 8, 1901. Along with relatives and 15 security guards, he would be spending the night at the Narragansett Hotel where he had reserved the first three floors. The next afternoon, the Brown University graduate, son of the wealthiest man in America and heir to the Standard Oil Company fortune would exchange wedding vows with Abbey Greene Aldrich, the beautiful daughter of RI senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich.
The celebration would take place at the palatial Aldrich estate at Warwick Neck. A temporary structure had been built on the grounds for the occasion, erected by the contracting company of William Gilbane & Brother. Referred to as the ‘annex’, it was a single story and covered about 7,000 square feet of ground extending along the north side of the estate’s two-story teahouse. It was built upon the site of the former casino, a granite three-story building containing a boathouse and clubhouse which had burned down six months earlier.
The annex possessed a deeply pitched roof almost level with the roof of the teahouse’s second story, which was utilized as a ballroom for the family. The east, west and north sides of the annex had triple dormer windows which bathed the area in daylight. The open end faced Narragansett Bay and a portable boiler had been installed the week prior so that the structure would be warm during the wedding.
The gray stone teahouse stood at the water’s edge with the 70-room French Renaissance stone mansion perched high atop a hill about 100 yards away. Shortly after 11:00 on the morning of the 9th, Abbey and her parents left the mansion and took a carriage to the teahouse for the 11:30 ceremony.
Men had been working for five weeks to beautify the emerald lawns, the private wharf, the trees and walkways of the 225-acre property. A decorator from New York had spent the last two days turning the ballroom and annex into something out of a fairytale.
The ballroom was draped in white silk bunting while white canvas carpet covered the floor. The arched ceiling and walls were hung with masses of Japanese ferns and Southern simlax creeping vines which trailed down from above and curtained the windows. Between each window, a large golden half-basket was affixed to the wall with mauve orchids showering down from it.
The mantel above the great fireplace was banked with white and mauve orchids and ferns. Huge bows of lavender satin ribbon hung at each end of the mantel. Above the fireplace, a large 15-foot-long seashell shape, woven of East Indian green moss and outlined with ferns and lily of the valley, was suspended from the ceiling. Beneath it was a Persian rug set with two white satin prayer pillows.
Only close family had been invited to the ceremony. Most of the 700 guests would arrive later on the bay steamers Bay Queen and Mount Hope. The vessels would transport them from Dyer Street wharf in Providence to the private wharf near the teahouse. One would leave Providence at 10:30 and the other at 11:00, each taking an hour to reach the Aldrich estate. Others would arrive via 45 closed electric cars which had been hired to transport guests to the wedding.
At 11:15, the few guests assembled in the ballroom. Sherry’s Italian String Orchestra was set within a grove of miniature palms in the balcony above the stairway. They began playing music from ‘Lohengrin’ as the four ushers entered the room followed by Abbey’s sister Elsie who was dressed in a dainty white translucent silk gown trimmed with crocheted Irish lace. She carried a large basket of bouvardia flowers. Abbey’s sister Lucy entered next, wearing a pale blue silk dress with embroidered chiffon lace trimming on the bodice and skirt. On her head was a large wide-brimmed elaborate hat affixed with pale blue plums. She carried a woven Egyptian basket filled with bouvardia.
The bride followed, holding her father’s arm. After ascending the winding staircase to the ballroom, she passed through a large wreath of greens and roses and made her way toward the fireplace. Her gown was made in NY of heavy ivory white satin. The high bodice was shirred tulle with a trim of crocheted Brussels lace falling to the hem of the skirt. The high collar was also of rare and expensive crocheted lace. The gown fastened down the back and included a long train and a tulle veil fastened with orange blossoms. Abbey wore no jewelry and carried a bouquet of white orchids tied with long white ribbons.
The groom and his best man, Everett Colby, stood in front of the fireplace as Abbey joined her intended there beneath the massive mossy shell. The couple knelt upon the prayer pillows as Reverend James Vose performed a short and simple Episcopal service. At the end of the ceremony, the orchestra began playing Mendelssohn’s March and, as congratulations were offered to the couple, the whistle of an expected steamer could be heard coming up the bay.
The wedding breakfast reception was held at 12:30 in the annex. Billows of white bunting covered the seats, floor, walls and ceilings. Vines and greenery were suspended from every conceivable location and thousands of rare orchids and Transylvania ferns were scattered about. Seating ran along the edges of the room while on the north wall hung lover’s knots crafted of pink ribbon.
The meal was served buffet-style and, due to limited space, only a handful of guests could be accommodated at the small tables arranged in the shape of a heart inside the annex. The other guests sat at tables set up on the lawn. Music was provided by Schubert’s Orchestra of NY.
The wedding gifts, which had been arriving for weeks, were valued at over $100,000 and included a cameo worth $5,000, 12 gold plates, four silver punch bowls, one gold punch bowl, a gold loving cup decorated with pearls, four Tiffany lamps, and gold in the form of vases, candelabra and a tea set.
The newly married couple settled into a home in NY, which had been a wedding gift. In 1915, Senator Aldrich died. Two years later, Abbey and her siblings split into two sides to debate the will. In 1939, the Warwick Neck property was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of RI. The teahouse has since burned down. The exquisite ballroom is gone along with those who stood inside it that autumn day of 1901. The laughter, well wishes and orchid-scented sea breezes have dissolved into the past, carried away by the fading melody of yesterday’s violins.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.
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