The Breakers ranks as the most spectacular of the Gilded Age mansions that visitors to Newport can visit.
Marble House ranks a close second.
And there’s a reason for that.
Vanderbilt sisters-in-law built the two opulent cottages because of their intense social rivalry. Alice Vanderbilt masterminded the Breakers, Alva Vanderbilt Marble House.
They had married the grandsons of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built a transportation empire from a small boat he used to start a ferry service from Staten Island.
The Vanderbilt Family Saga
Vanderbilt, known as the commodore, had 13 children, but he wanted to keep his fortune intact. So he bequeathed the bulk of his money to his son William, known as Billy.
Billy himself had nine children. His oldest son, Cornelius, expected to inherit most of his father’s money, as his father had before him.
But Cornelius’ younger brother William Kissam Vanderbilt had married a driven social climber named Alva Smith. Though no American fortune exceeded the Vanderbilts’, New York’s social elite considered them coarse parvenus. So despite their money, the Vanderbilts were excluded from the best clubs, the best parties, the best seats at the opera.
Alva set out to change that with an over-the-top costume ball. She invited Mrs. Astor, who ruled New York Society – and ruled out the Vanderbilts. As the date of the ball approached, everyone who was anyone in New York talked about it. Mrs. Astor caved and went to Alva’s ball. From then on, the Vanderbilts were in.
BIlly Vanderbilt, grateful to Alva, divided most of the Vanderbilt money between William and Cornelius. That infuriated Cornelius’ wife, Alice.
Breakers vs. Marble House
After Billy died in 1885, Alva began work on Marble House in Newport. Newport was then just coming into its own as an ostentatious summer playground for the super-rich. Alva hired Richard Morris Hunt to design the marble palace. The 50-room mansion, which resembles the White House, cost $11 million and took four years to build and decorate.
As soon as Alva finished Marble House, Alice hired Hunt to design the Breakers. She envisioned a 16th-century Genoese palace, but bigger and better than Marble House.
The Breakers took its name from the house that burned down. Cornelius and Alice bought the land and built Breakers 2.0. Built between 1892 and 1895, it had 70 rooms to Marble House’s 50, five floors to its rival’s four. And Alice spent more than $12 million compared to Alva’s $11 million.
Cornelius Vanderbilt died of a stroke five years after the Breakers opened for summer. Alva divorced William three years after she finished Marble House and kept the house. Alice outlived Cornelius by 35 years. When she died in 1934, she left the house to her daughter, Countess Gladys Széchenyi. But the Vanderbilt money was running out, and the countess couldn’t keep up the Breakers. In 1948, she leased it for $1 a year to the Preservation Society of Newport, which bought it and 95 percent of the furniture from her heirs in 1972.
Visiting the Breakers
Visitors first pass through a 30 foot wrought iron gate, then through a massive porte cochere where people could disembark from their carriages without getting caught in the rain.
Inside the rooms flow into each other, beginning with the white marble Great Hall. It’s 50 feet by 50 feet by 50, lavishly ornamented. All the public rooms, in fact, are crammed with ornately carved marble, alabaster and gilded wood, painted ceilings, statuary, stained glass and Italian tapestry. One visitor noticed custom relief work on some of the bedroom hinges.
The dining room features a 34-seat table. It’s perhaps the grandest room in the house — with 2400 square feet,12 alabaster Corinthian columns supporting a colossal gilt cornice and enormous chandeliers.
Upstairs, the bedrooms don’t have quite the same lavish ornamentation as the public rooms. Alice Vanderbilt, though, had an oval bedroom (large, of course) with four closets for her clothes.
There is a gift shop and a cafe has premade food, drinks and snacks, premade sandwiches, along with a tables and chairs.
Five Things You Won’t Forget About the Breakers
Servants had to prepare a lot of food for the Vanderbilts’ extravagant soirees. The mammoth kitchen was set back from the rest of the house so as not to start a fire. Also, so no one but servants smelled the cooking. The kitchen, features a 21-foot coal stove. In the butler’s pantry, shelves hold tableware that reach the ceiling.
The billiard room, also featured in The Gilded Age, evokes ancient Greece and Rome. Embedded in the mosaic are semiprecious stones in the shape of acorns, their family emblem.
The loggia looking out over Easton’s Bay is a work of Italianate art and a large room in itself. But the stunning view to the ocean is what really takes the breath away.
A staircase from the Great Hall curves upward with low rising marble steps and a wrought iron balustrade.
Under the stairs, water trickles from a grotto fountain and reflects flickering light onto the marble walls.
PLATINUM LEAF WALLS
The Music Room, setting for the Russells’ ball in The Gilded Age, features eight platinum leaf panels depicting elements of classical mythology. Conservators thought the gleaming silvery panels were aluminum because they hadn’t discolored, but no, they were platinum.
Every inch of the room has ornamentation. Its gilt coffered ceiling, lined with silver and gold, has the lyrics of French songs and French composers.
Newport’s Historic Districts
The Breakers isn’t the only mansion open to visitors in Newport. The Bellevue Avenue (and Bellevue-adjacent) mansions include Rosecliff, The Elms, Chateau-sur-Mer, Kingscote, Rough Point, Marble House and the Green Animal Topiary Garden.
Along Newport’s rocky coast winds the Cliff Walk, a 3 1/2 mile scenic path with views of the ocean, beaches and mansions.
Newport has colonial history as well, and Rhode Island’s oldest tavern, the White Horse. It opened in 1683 when William Mayes bought the property and enlarged it into a tavern.
Tories hung out at the tavern in the early days of the Revolution. It also housed British soldiers leading up to the Battle of Rhode Island. Among its more colorful owners was William Mayes, Jr., a Rhode Island pirate.
Today you can not only visit the White Horse, you can still get a meal and a drink there. For more information, visit the Tavern’s website here.
Near the Bellevue Avenue mansions, the Ocean Drive Historic District is Rhode Island’s largest. It developed when the new grand mansions on Bellevue Avenue pushed development south. Ocean Drive begins near Bellevue Avenue, follows the shoreline to Brenton Point State Park and then ends just south of Fort Adams.
The roadway winds through rolling green hills, rocky cliffs, pastures and summer houses. Those include early 18th-century farms and Eidlitz’s Swiss Chalet of 1854. Frederick Law Olmsted designed some of the landscape.
The homes are much more private than on Bellevue Avenue. But they include some architectural gems: the neoclassical Beacon Rock estate by McKim, Mead and White. There’s also a stunning French chateaux by Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson and Bonniecrest and a Tudor English mansion converted to condos. Hammersmith Farm, where Sen. John F. Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier, is also along Ocean Drive.
Commercial buildings are generally the clubhouses of private beaches. Gooseberry Beach is private but open to the public.
Breakers interior By xiquinhosilva – https://www.flickr.com/photos/xiquinho/49059770346/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97218697; interior with red curtains By xiquinhosilva – https://www.flickr.com/photos/xiquinho/44831439702/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97218700. Platinum leaf walls By Renata3 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=109923527. Breakers exterior By xiquinhosilva – https://www.flickr.com/photos/xiquinho/33087730445/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97218064. Great Hall By xiquinhosilva – https://www.flickr.com/photos/xiquinho/44439354695/, CC BY 2.0,, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97218691. Cliff walk: By Beyond My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=104099223. Kitchen By UpstateNYer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7548933.