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.