The mansion was built as a summer “cottage” retreat between 1888 and 1892 for Alva and William Kissam Vanderbilt. It was a social landmark that helped spark the transformation of Newport from a relatively relaxed summer colony of wooden houses to the now-legendary resort of opulent stone palaces. The fifty-room mansion required a staff of 36 servants, including butlers, maids, coachmen, and footmen.
The mansion cost $11 million (equivalent to $293 million in 2016) of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet (14,000 m³) of marble. Vanderbilt’s older brother Cornelius Vanderbilt II subsequently built the largest of the Newport cottages, The Breakers, between 1893 and 1895.
When Alva Vanderbilt divorced William in 1895, she already owned Marble House outright, having received it as her 39th birthday present. Upon her remarriage in 1896 to Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, she relocated down the street to Belmont’s mansion, Belcourt. After his death, she reopened Marble House and added the Chinese Tea House on the seaside cliff, where she hosted rallies for women’s suffrage.
Alva Belmont closed the mansion permanently in 1919, when she relocated to France to be closer to her daughter, Consuelo Balsan. There she divided her time between a Paris townhouse, a villa on the Riviera, and the Château d’Augerville, which she restored.
She sold the house to Frederick H. Prince in 1932, less than a year before her death. In 1963 the Preservation Society of Newport County bought the house from the Prince Trust, with funding provided by Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, the Vanderbilt couple’s youngest son. The Trust donated the furniture for the house directly to the Preservation Society.
The mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places on September 10, 1971. The Department of the Interior designated it as a National Historic Landmark on February 17, 2006.The Bellevue Avenue Historic District, which includes Marble House and many other historic Newport mansions, was added to the Register on December 8, 1972 and subsequently designated as a National Historic Landmark District on May 11, 1976.