Visiting the Breakers

Welcome to the Breakers, Newport, RI! This is the first post in a series of three I’ll be doing on the Newport mansions, and I thought I’d begin with the most famous one. Sit back, relax, museum from home and take a little walk with me through this huge palace of a “summer cottage” right on the Rhode Island coast.

This beautiful Italian Renaissance-style mansion was the summer home of Cornelius II (1843-1899) and Alice Vanderbilt (1845-1934). Cornelius’ grandfather made the Vanderbilt fortune in railroads and steamships.

In 1885, they purchased the Breakers – at that point, it was actually a completely different house that had been built only eight years earlier for Pierre Lorillard by Peabody & Stearns.

It got its name from the way the waves would break on the cliffs at the bottom of the property.

In 1892, it was destroyed by fire, so the Vanderbilts commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to build the huge house that is so famous today.

It took just over two years, between 1893 and 1895, to construct, and it includes a whopping seventy rooms.

One of the most impressive spaces I thought was the Great Hall – it was meant, as the Italian style of the house might suggest, to be like a Renaissance courtyard, with the ceiling mimicking the sky.

The dolphin fountain behind the stairs also seems to be straight out of an Italian palazzo.

Fun fact about the Great Hall that might diminish its formal image: the Vanderbilt children would actually use dinner trays to slide down the stairs!

This kind of reminds me of the mattress surfing in The Princess Diaries II, but in true Vanderbilt opulent style, these dinner trays were made of silver.

This is the Billiard Room, which was designed to evoke a Roman bathhouse.

You can see it, can’t you, with all that marble and mosaic?

Upstairs, the decoration and style really reflect the fact that these were family bedrooms.

Things are a lot less ornate than downstairs, and I really loved all the wallpapers – they are full of character and flair.

Unfortunately, Cornelius passed away after a second stroke in 1899, meaning that he only got to enjoy the majestic house he and Alice had built for four years. Alice outlived him by thirty-five years, and, upon her death, it was inherited by their daughter Gladys.

My terrible photo of William Bruce Ellis Ranken’s painting of Alice, Gladys and Gertrude Vanderbilt having tea in the library (1932).

Gladys Vanderbilt was by now Countess Széchényi, having married Count Laszlo Széchényi, who was part of a prominent aristocratic family in Hungary. Gladys did much to assist the historic preservation of Newport and the mansions surrounding the Breakers.

In 1948, she opened the Breakers for the first time for members of the public to tour. Their admission went towards fundraising for the Newport Preservation Society to restore Hunter House, an eighteenth-century building that had fallen considerably into disrepair.

She also began to lease the Breakers to the Preservation Society for only a dollar a year, herself paying the expenses for the property’s maintenance. The Society eventually bought the Breakers in 1972 for around $400,000. So, we really have Gladys and the Preservation Society to thank for the mansion being in such wonderful condition!

Also, one more last fun fact: Gertrude Vanderbilt, Gladys’ sister, was a sculptor and art patron who was married in the house to one Henry Payne Whitney in 1896. Gertrude would go on to found the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1931.


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