Newport Mansions - The Breakers
Don't visit Newport, Rhode Island without taking a tour of the Gilded Age mansions. They're beautiful, opulent and just plain fun to see. The Gilded Age refers to a formative period in American history that emerged after the Civil War in 1865 and continued to World War I. It was a period when American wealth and power were on the ascendency.
In the late nineteenth-century, Newport became a hit with the uber-wealthy. In those days before air conditioning, the natural breezes off Narragansett Bay and Newport Harbor provided cool winds and beautiful scenery. Newport became a Mecca for the rich and famous, a place to see and be seen. It fast became the nation's summer resort, a place where the money and taste of the country's great industrial families were on display.
The Preservation Society of Newport County
The Preservation Society of Newport County was founded in 1945 as the Georgian Society. Its sole objective was to save an old home, the Hunter House, from demolition. The mission of the society soon expanded and it is now the force behind the preservation of some of the nation's premier architectural splendors. The society operates 10 mansions and properties that are open to the public:
44 Ochre Point Avenue
474 Bellevue Avenue
120 Narragansett Avenue
367 Bellevue Avenue
Green Animals Topiary Garden
380 Cory's Lane
54 Washington Street
Isaac Bell House
70 Perry Street
253 Bellevue Avenue
596 Bellevue Avenue
548 Bellevue Avenue
This article will concentrate on the most resplendent of the Newport mansions, The Breakers. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, was president of the New York Railroad, the business founded by the Commodore.
In 1885 he purchased a large wooden home on the ocean named The Breakers. It burned to the ground in 1892. Not at a loss for money, Vanderbilt contracted the famous architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a new "cottage." The result was one of the world's most opulent homes.
As you walk around the exterior of the house you're struck, not only by its architecture, but by its positioning on the grounds. It is surrounded by gardens that are expertly maintained by the Preservation Society. The view of the ocean is spectacular.
Hunt designed The Breakers in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo, reminiscent of the great palaces of the 16th century. Hunt put together a team of artisans from around the world. The house has 70 rooms and is approximately 65,000 square feet in size. Amazingly, the house was completed in two years.
The Grand Hall
The Breakfast Library
The details in every room are striking. In one room there are are mirror-like panels around the doors. Upon examination, you think that they are made of silver. No, they are platinum, one of the most expensive substances on earth. When it came to home improvements, Vanderbilt never heard the word "budget." Every room is designed to dazzle and impress you.
An interesting element of the interior are the bedrooms. Designed by Boston architect Ogden Codman, they are surprisingly modest. This was intentional. Codman wanted to emphasize warmth and privacy for personal spaces, rather than the opulence of the rest of the house.
As you walk from room to room you will not see cracked plaster or peeling paint. The Preservation Society does a masterful job of keeping this architectural gem in beautiful condition. It isn't an easy job, because The Breakers has very few simple straight lines. It's ornamentation upon ornamentation, creating a never ending task of maintenance.
Some critics and pundits think that The Breakers is too over the top to be considered serious architecture. To its credit, the Preservation Society has included some of these critiques on the audio tour. I think these critics are too busy calling attention to themselves rather than to the object of their scorn. The mansions of the Gilded Age show us a unique time in America, a time when our country was in its ascendency. Is it not appropriate to see what some of the most powerful and wealth men of the age did with their money?
Gladys Vanderbilt, who married Count Laszlo Szechenyi of Hungary, was the youngest of the Vanderbilt's seven children. She inherited The Breakers on her mother's death in 1934. An enthusiastic supporter of the Preservation Society, she open the mansion to the public in 1948 to help raise funds for the Society. She leased it for one dollar a year. In 1972 the Preservation Society purchased The Breakers from Gladys's daughter for $365,000, with the agreement that the family could remain there in a private residence on the third floor.
View of the Ocean from Rear Terrace
Have you ever visited one of the Newport Mansions?
The admission fee includes an audio handset with ear phones. Antenna Audio, the company that has cornered the market on audio museum tours, keeps improving its devices. One of the problems with audio tours over the years has been the possibility of getting lost. Hit the wrong button and you may as well turn the thing off. That is no longer a problem. If you lose your place at The Breakers, you simply look for a number in the room you're in. Put in the number and the audio starts right where you are. Another great feature of the audio tour are the extras in most of the rooms. There are signs indicating that you can listen to additional historic information, or you can just continue your tour. One sign I saw read "The End of the Gilded Age." What brought about its demise? You guessed it. The 16th Amendment brought the Income Tax to America, slamming the breaks on the amassing of large fortunes. This is one of the many benefits of an audio tour, compared to a tour guided by a docent. You are in control of just how much you want to see and hear. If you missed something, just hit replay.
The admission fees are flexible. I think the best value is a five mansion tour for $31. You don't have to visit all five in one day, or even in one week or month. The admissions are good until you use them, so if you buy the five mansion deal you can enjoy your visits without worrying about an expiration date.
Newport isn't difficult to get to, but it's not exactly just off the major road. It's about a half-hour's drive from the major Route 95. It's well worth the detour.
A mansion tour is a must if you visit Newport.
Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran