• The Breakers


    If there is a single summer home that effectively serves as a monument to the Gilded Age, that home is The Breakers. The term was first coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today in an effort to mock the ostentatious display of wealth by playing on the term “golden age.” Such rapid accumulation of wealth will likely never be witnessed again as the personal fortunes of the 1870s and 1880s were not subject to an income tax.

    I recently toured this breath-taking relic of a by-gone era while in Newport for a stint. The great hall immediately swallows you in a sea of disbelief—disbelief that such an array of fabrics, stones, precious metals, and craftsmanship could be conceived, much less summoned in less than two years. Entire rooms were designed and built in shops of European craftsmen, including Allard and Sons of Paris, and then shipped to Newport for reassembly. Built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II (worth more than $70 million) and his family, The Breakers was modeled after the Renaissance palaces of Turin and Genoa. Its 65,000 square foot gait was fashioned to entertain. Ironically, the Vanderbilts weren’t particularly noted for their entertaining. In fact, they weren’t particularly noted for having lived in the summer home much at all as Vanderbilt suffered a stroke and died shortly after The Breakers’ completion.

    The Preservation Society of Newport County currently owns The Breakers. The non-profit’s collection includes 11 historic sites in an ongoing effort to protect, preserve, and present one of the most historically intact cities in America.

    The most striking feature of the library is the great stone chimney piece, originally from a French chateau.

    A portrait of Commodore Vanderbilt, the grandfather of the owner of The Breakers, is on the far wall.

    The music room, constructed in Paris by Jules Allard and shipped to Newport, was the scene of recitals and dances.

    Images via The Preservation Society of Newport County

    Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's room features French furnishings selected by the decorator Ogden Codman and portraits of Mrs. Whitney and her daughter.

    Aug 24, 2011 | Permalink (18) Total Comments

    Robin left a comment on 7/14/2013 at 12:46 AM:

    I think its all lovely…thank you for sharing.

    Ann left a comment on 2/4/2012 at 5:06 PM:

    I went here for the summer with my cousins! Beautiful place!
    The pictures you took are set at an extravagant angle! It is simply eye-catching and riveting :)
    However were you granted permission to take pictures inside the mansion? I know there’s a ‘no taking pictures inside’ rule…

    Scarlet left a comment on 1/25/2012 at 3:37 AM:

    Very beautiful architecture. Looks like something out of a fairy tale. :D Wow!

    Walter left a comment on 10/20/2011 at 9:01 AM:

    The coverage of house is fine. I don’t know the purpose of the piece it does seem a bit out of place on this site to me. What I do find disturbing and distracting are the number of people who find what clearly appears to me to be the desperate need to either promote their degrees (no one cares) or their personal fantasies (no one cares) instead of comment on the piece at hand.

    Edward left a comment on 10/20/2011 at 8:46 AM:

    How sad how many dreamers this lifestyle solicites.

    bucephalus left a comment on 9/3/2011 at 4:28 PM:

    The interior décor of Breakers is not more elaborate or gaudy than your typical Bavarian or Austrian Baroque church, let alone Versailles.  But what makes it seem so shocking and overwhelming is that it’s in the United States where one expects a certain amount of Puritan understatement even in the stateliest (classic) mansions.  I’m wondering, is there another Gilded Age mansion that’s as ornate inside ?  Biltmore isn’t, nor the other Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park, NY.

    Elizabeth left a comment on 9/3/2011 at 2:22 AM:

    It’s beautiful, but at the same time, intimidating. I can’t even imagine living in a place like that. Look at that ballroom! Why, no matter what you wore, you’d clash with it!

    JMW left a comment on 9/2/2011 at 11:13 PM:

    Old Westbury is so much nicer.

    F.E. Castleberry left a comment on 9/1/2011 at 7:36 PM:

    As someone who holds a degree in finance, I’m not even all that interested in conversing about historic income tax law.  Imagine how eager the rest are.

    bucephalus left a comment on 9/1/2011 at 7:28 PM:

    The federal corporate income tax was enacted several times in the 19th century, but it did not survive constitutional challenges.  It took the 16th amendment to the Constitution—the same one which allowed the personal income tax—to empower the federal government to tax corporate income.  In other words, robber baron corporations like Standard Oil or Carnegie Steel or J P Morgan & Co. basically paid no federal income tax.  There were state taxes, but these were risibly small.

    Modern financial engineering is not relevant.  The fortunes of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett aren’t built on terribly complex products.  They are built on massively appreciated common and preferred stock.

    DJ left a comment on 9/1/2011 at 3:41 PM:

    Hmmm…long term capital gains are indeed taxed at 15%, but for the highest tax bracket, any short-term CG’s are taxed at 35%.  And yes, the fortunes of many of the Robber Barons were accumulated through personal income as much of the financial engineering and/or many of today’s modern electronic-marketplace derived products had not yet been developed.  It was much safer and lucrative to take the personal “income” then rather than to leave it subject to corporate taxation (which did exist then).

    JC left a comment on 9/1/2011 at 11:01 AM:

    Less than half the size of the “other” Vanderbilt abode in Asheville, NC.

    bucephalus left a comment on 9/1/2011 at 2:43 AM:

    “Such rapid accumulation of wealth will likely never be witnessed again as the personal fortunes of the 1870s and 1880s were not subject to an income tax.”

    Actually, the accumulation of wealth in the Gilded Age has nothing to do with the lack of an income tax.  In fact, most fortunes TODAY are not subject to income tax, because the wealth of billionaires like Bill Gates are not derived from income, but from unrealized capital gains (which are not taxed at all).  Even if Bill Gates sold all his Microsoft shares, the capital gains tax is only 15% !

    Raulston left a comment on 8/31/2011 at 7:54 PM:

    I find myself in a constant fit of nostalgia wondering why we no longer build with such detail (even if it is on a bit of a smaller scale). The attention to detail in the gilded age was extraordinarily unprecedented. Thank you for another superb post !

    Phaon Spurlock left a comment on 8/31/2011 at 4:52 PM:

    This place is BEYOND amazing! Well, I know where my next trip will be.

    Phaon Spurlock
    Men’s Lifestyle

    Joy left a comment on 8/31/2011 at 4:51 PM:

    America’s Versaille that’s for sure.

    G.O.S left a comment on 8/31/2011 at 4:22 PM:

    How did you get into my house ?!?

    Christina left a comment on 8/31/2011 at 4:10 PM:

    When I was little we’d go visit The Breakers every summer.  I always liked to pretend I’d be invited over for croquet on the back lawn.