The 124-Year-Old Summer Cottage that Took Our Breath Away
About 119 kilometres from downtown Boston stands a palatial summer cottage. When Masood and I were in US last spring, our colleague and good friend, Ellen, suggested we drive to Newport to see these summer cottages. While there are ten mansions in Newport, it’s a 124-year-old summer cottage that took our breath away. It’s called The Breakers.
The Breakers is the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America.
Due to time constraint (we only had one day) and the fact that you need to pay to enter these properties, we decided to visit one mansion. We chose the grandest of them all: The Breakers. Standing outside its massive gate we wondered whether it was wise to pay $24 per person to see someone’s mansion.
I can’t help calculating our expenses when we travel and then converting the amount to dirham. I know some folks who create an excel sheet of all their expenses before leaving home to travel and stick to that. While I admire their planning and discipline I couldn’t get myself to do the same. Too lazy, that’s all. Mostly we know how much we’re spending on air fare and accommodations because we’re paying for them beforehand. We deal with the rest of the expenses during our trip.
So we stood there across the street from The Breaker’s gate. “Well, the mansion is massive and it does look pretty impressive,” I wondered out loud, “but is it worth paying to see their furniture?” Masood shrugged his shoulders. He brought a couple of his die-cast cars with him and he looked as if he was mostly interested in getting started to photograph them.
Just then a young woman walked out of the gates and crossed the road toward the parking lot. I asked her if it was worth the visit. She took out her phone in response and began showing me the hundreds of pictures she took. “See for yourself,” she said.
The Preservation Society allows interior photography at all the Newport Mansions, except the Hunter House. Photography is only allowed provided it does not disrupt other visitors. Photography is permitted without flash, tripods or selfie sticks, for non-commercial and social media uses only by visitors.
I notice that they do not allow DSLR cameras. Almost everyone was taking pictures using smart phones.
To experience the type of extravagance that only too much money can buy, there’s only one choice: the completely over the top The Breakers. Excess on this scale happens so rarely that it’d be a shame to miss the spectacle. The New York Times.
The Breaker belonged to American socialite and businessman, Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Apparently he was a favourite since his grandfather left him $5 million and his father left him $70 million (and we’re talking about the 1885!). He also succeeded both men as the head of the New York Central Railroad.
Richard Morris Hunt—America’s leading architect of the late 19th century—was commissioned to design the house. The Breakers is designed in the Italian Renaissance style, modeled after the 16th-century palaces and villas of Genoa. Much of the decorative ornament draws inspiration from classical Greek and Roman architecture.
A Photo Tour of the Mansion
I’d rather not go into writing the details of each room and what it contains lest this blog post turns into a novel. We availed ourselves of the self-guided audio tour when we visited and I highly recommend you do that if you’re visiting for the first time. It not only includes interviews of people who have visited the mansion or had worked there before but it also incorporates sound effects—period music, the sounds of a busy kitchen, someone playing the piano—which help transport you back into that era.
My favourite parts are the kitchen and the massive balcony that faces the sea. The kitchen and pantry are interesting. It’s amazing how the staff ran the household on a daily basis. There are stairs running behind the kitchen that the servants use to climb up to their quarters because they were neither to be seen nor heard.
Walking in the ballroom and taking in its splendour reminded me of the historical novels I’ve read. The part where the lady would feel hot after dancing for hours (actually, I believe it happens mostly after dancing with the hero, which almost always results in the lady ending up annoyed with him) and would thereby go to the balcony for some fresh air. The Breakers ballroom have doors that lead to such a balcony.
The Breakers is named for the ocean waves crashing in from the Atlantic.
The mansion covers about 130,000 sq.ft, has 70 rooms and 23 bathrooms. The rooms include a 50 ft wide Grand Hall, a music room, and a 2400 sq ft dining room with twelve enormous rose alabaster pillars. Oh, and the billiards room has an elaborately detailed mosaic ceiling and is made up of twenty varieties of marble!
The Library has a massive marble fireplace acquired from a 16th century French Chateau. The bathtub is carved out of a single piece of marble and has a supply of hot, cold and saltwater tapped directly from the ocean. It took over two years to build the various parts of the mansion many of which were shipped from Europe.
The Breakers is designated a National Historic Landmark today.
Pat Coleman, the daughter of one of the Vanderbilt’s chambermaids, is featured on the audio tour and shares the following tidbit about life on the estate:
The sheets had to be changed twice a day. She always talked about all the amount of laundry that they generated. They would wear something once, it would go to the laundry. The bath would be drawn, those towels would go to the laundry. Each bath was made of marble so thick and cold, a maid had to fill and empty it twice before the bath was warm enough for a Vanderbilt.
The Vanderbilt had seven children. Gladys, their youngest daughter (she married a Hungarian Count), inherited the house on her mother’s death in 1934. She was an ardent supporter of The Preservation Society of Newport County and opened The Breakers in 1948 to raise funds for the Society. In 1972, the Preservation Society purchased the house from her heirs.
We had such a wonderful time appreciating the mansion, its lavish interiors, and listening to how the extremely wealthy folks had lived. It felt like we traveled back in time – that’s how good the audio tour was. We ignored the cold early spring wind and took a stroll in the garden. Masood got a some very good pictures of his cars. I bought a fridge magnet before we left.
Visit The Preservation Society of Newport County for more details.