Tied as my favorite room with the Morning Room at the iconic Breakers Mansion in Newport, the jaw-dropping library is almost too good to be true. The library was designed to be the centerpiece of life for Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was always well-read. The walls are paneled with Circassian walnut cut in Europe and stamped with gold. The ceiling is coffered with more gold leaf. The fireplace in the library is probably my favorite in the mansion, which was acquired from a 16th-century French chateau, Chateau d’Arnay Ie Duc. The walls in the library and its smaller alcove are covered with wainscoting of Circassian walnut decorated with low relief carving and gold leaf; the walls above the woodwork are covered with panels of gold-embossed Spanish leather. Yes, leather walls! What is your favorite part of the Breakers Library??
You know you’ve “made it” if you have a music room, especially if you have one in your summer mansion in Newport! The Music Room in The Breakers evokes the opulent Parisian interiors of the Second Period and when inside the room, you just feel sensory overload (in the best way possible. The room is located off the Great Room and Morning Room, at the southern end of the house. The Music Room was used for recitals and dances for the Vanderbilt Family and guests. The room displays ornate woodwork and furnishings designed by Richard Van der Boyen and built by J. Allard of Paris. The room looks like it was plucked out of a French building and dropped into the mansion, and that is because it was! The room’s interior was constructed completely in France and then sent to America where it was installed at The Breakers by French craftsmen. My favorite parts of the interior are the bay window at the end and the gilt gold coffered ceiling.
Possibly my favorite room in The Breakers mansion is the Morning Room, found on the first floor, just off the Great Hall and lower loggia. The Morning Room is executed in a late Renaissance style and faces east to catch the morning sun and provides sweeping views of the Atlantic. It served as a family sitting room at all times of the day. The interior design, including the fixtures, woodworking, and furniture, were designed by French architect Richard Bouwens van der Boijen and designer Jules Allard. The predominant grey, and gold colors of the Morning Room are echoed in its fireplace which is made of Campan marble. On the walls, you will find the most stunning shimmering silver wall panels, depicting ancient Greek goddesses. It was originally believed that these features were silver leaf, but the Newport County Preservation Society investigated further, determining it is actually platinum! The Vanderbilts clearly wanted this room to shimmer with the sunrise, so the use of platinum, which never tarnishes, was a great solution!
The Dining Room at The Breakers Mansion in Newport is straight out of a postcard! As you walk through the Great Hall into the Dining Room, you can imagine the high-quality 10-course meals served to the Vanderbilts and their wealthy guests. The two massive chandeliers always catch my attention first. The chandeliers are comprised of thousands of crystal balls and beads and were executed by Cristalleries Baccarat, the French glassmakers founded in 1765, but were partially designed by William Morris Hunt, the architect of the home, in the imperial pattern with a crown atop each fixture. Twelve free-standing columns of alabaster surround the room each with Corinthian-style capitals of gilded bronze, which seemingly support the edges of the vaulted ceiling. These columns support a massive carved and gilt cornice. The fireplace of the Dining Room is of carved and gilt grey marble; its hood is of a deep grey Cippolino marble, and it is amazing!
Merry Christmas from The Breakers! This 1895 Gilded Age mansion is the best to explore during December, when the halls are decked and stunning Christmas trees adorn the lavish rooms (learn more about the mansion in my last post) When you walk into The Breakers, you enter the Great Hall. Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the Great Hall after the open-air courtyards in Italian villas, but enclosed due to the tough New England winters. The palatial space (measuring 50 foot square), even if crowded by tourists trying to get the perfect shot on their smartphones, feels spacious yet somehow welcoming given the art museum-like detailing. The walls are made of carved limestone from Caen on the coast of France and adorned with plaques of rare marbles. Elaborately carved pilasters decorated with acorns and oak leaves support a massive carved and gilt-cornice which surrounds a ceiling painted to depict a windswept sky, further expressing the open-air courtyard feeling envisioned by Hunt, the architect. Four bronze chandeliers dangle from the gilded ceiling, and flood the room with warm light, evoking warm summers in Italy.
The most opulent of all summer ‘cottages’ in Newport is the iconic Gilded Age mansion, The Breakers. This mansion was completed in 1895 as a summer residence for Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Cornelius’ grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad. Cornelius Vanderbilt II became President of the New York Central Railroad system in 1885, and bought a wooden summer house called The Breakers in Newport during that same year. The original Breakers Mansion burned in a fire in 1892 and was rebuilt, but more substantially. Vanderbilt commissioned famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to rebuild it. Vanderbilt insisted that the building be made as fireproof as possible, so the structure of the building used steel trusses and no wooden parts. He even required that the boiler housed in an underground space below the front lawn. The Italian Renaissance-Beaux Arts style mansion was likely the most expensive home constructed in New England at the time at a cost of over $7 Million USD (equivalent to over $150 million today).
Cornelius Vanderbilt died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1899 at age 55, leaving The Breakers to his wife Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt. She outlived him by 35 years and died at the age of 89 in 1934. She left The Breakers to her youngest daughter Countess Gladys Széchenyi (1886–1965). In 1948, Gladys leased the near-impossible to maintain property to The Preservation Society of Newport County for $1 per year. The Preservation Society bought The Breakers and approximately 90% of its furnishings in 1972 for $365,000 ($2.3 million today) from Countess Sylvia Szapary, Gladys’ daughter, although the agreement granted her life tenancy. Upon her death in 1998, The Society agreed to allow the family to continue to live on the third floor, which is not open to the public. The last-remaining family members residing there were evicted from the third floor due to safety concerns, but others state it is retaliation for the Szápárys’ opposition of the controversial Breakers Welcome Center, the plan for which other members of their family, including Gloria Vanderbilt, also opposed.
I love historic hotels, so when I decided that I was overdue for a “stay-cation” in Boston, spending time unwinding in an old building was mandatory. When walking around the Back Bay, I always loved the old Boston Police Department Headquarters building and used this as an opportunity to learn more about its history! The Boston Police Department Headquarters building on Berkeley Street was built in 1925, and was designed by the architectural firm of Ritchie, Parsons & Taylor, a firm that specialized in civic and institutional buildings. Prior to this building, the Boston Police Department was based out of an old townhouse in Pemberton Square. By the 1920s, such an out-dated and small building was not a good symbol for one of America’s premier police forces, so the City of Boston purchased a lot in the Back Bay and funded the new modern building. The structure is a late example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture in the city, and is classically refined. The brick building is clad with limestone, which is rusticated on the ground two floors. The building housed police department offices for over 70 years until 1997, when they built a new, Modern building in Roxbury. This building was boarded up for years until it was sold to an Irish hotel chain, who added two additional floors at the roof. They quickly went out of business and sold the hotel. The hotel today is operated by Loews, and they do a great job of highlighting the history of the building, from the meeting rooms named after significant police department employees of the past, the appropriately named Precinct Bar, to the Police-blue lanterns flanking the main entrance.
“La Rochelle”, one of the many beautiful summer “cottages” in Bar Harbor, Maine, sits on West Street, a well-preserved stretch of mansions that showcase Gilded Age wealth in the town. The cottage dates back to the 1902-3, when George Sullivan Bowdoin, great-grandson of Alexander Hamilton, and partner at J.P. Morgan, and his wife, Julia Irving Grinnell Bowdoin, a great niece of Washington Irving) commissioned the Boston architectural firm of Andrews, Jacques & Rantoul to design a cottage for them. They hoped to spend their summers away from New York, where they could rub elbows with other wealthy and well-connected summer residents in Bar Harbor. The French Renaissance style cottage, known as La Rochelle, became one of the first Bar Harbor mansions constructed of brick. The forty-one room, 13,000 square foot cottage was built with twelve bedrooms and nine full-bathrooms on two acres of land, which backs up to the Mount Desert Narrows and harbor. The name La Rochelle comes from La Rochelle, a seaport in Nouvelle, Aquitaine, France, where George’s ancestors lived before settling in present-day Maine (later moving to Boston). In the 1940s, Tristram C. Colket of Philadelphia and his wife (the former Ethel Dorrance, daughter of John T. Dorrance, the Campbell’s Soup king) acquired La Rochelle. In 1972, La Rochelle’s owners, the Colket family, donated it to The Maine Seacoast Mission, who then sold it in 2019 to the Bar Harbor Historical Society.
Providence is full of amazing residential architecture from all periods, but one house that stands out to me for being such a high style and unique mansion is the Hamilton House on Angell Street. The mansion was constructed in 1896 for local businessman, Francis W. Carpenter. From 1892 until his death, he was the president of Congdon & Carpenter Company, an iron and steel company which was founded in 1792, and operated in Providence into the 1980s. Carpenter was very influential as chairman of the committee on the construction of a new building for the Central Congregational Church (a previous post) in 1893. So pleased with how the church turned out, he hired the same architects, Carrère and Hastings of New York to design his own mansion which would sit next door to the church! Many in New England may not know how significant it was to have Carrere and Hastings design your house. To put it into perspective, while the firm was designing this house, they were designing the New York Public Library’s Main Branch building! The Carpenter Mansion was designed in the French Renaissance Revival style which was not too common in America, but always turns heads! The large hipped roof emulates the earlier French mansard roof forms, and the bold massing and use of limestone and brick makes the house look like a chateau or castle plucked from the French countryside. The house apparently was not finished until 1915, likely when the porte-cochere was added for the owner’s vehicles. The building is now occupied by The Hamilton House, a non-profit organization that serves as an adult learning exchange with programs from history classes to group fitness courses.
One of the best examples of Renaissance Revival architecture in Rhode Island is the Central Congregational Church of Providence. Constructed between 1891-1893, this building was the new home to a growing congregation, which outgrew its original Thomas Tefft-designed building on Benefit Street (which has since been occupied by RISD). Famed architect Thomas Hastings of the firm Carrère and Hastings of New York City, was hired to furnish plans, and worked closely with Reverend Edward C. Moore to make sure the building was fitting of the site. The church is cross-gabled in form and is constructed of yellow brick with terracotta trimmings, evocative of Spanish and Italian Renaissance styles. The facade has a detailed central pavilion which is flanked by two towers. These towers were originally surmounted by elaborate belfries, but these were damaged by a hurricane in the mid 20th century and replaced by the present brick caps. The dome and vaulting is of tiles by Rafael Guastavino, it is the first dome that he constructed in the U.S., making this building even more significant.