The Old Breakers Mansion // 1878-1892

For my last post on this series on The Breakers in Newport, I wanted to highlight the original Breakers mansion. Built in 1878, the original Breakers was equally as significant, but a completely different style architecturally. The Breakers was constructed for Pierre Lorillard IV (1833-1901), a tobacco manufacturer and thoroughbred race horse owner from New York. In 1760, his great-grandfather, and namesake of the family company, founded P. Lorillard and Company in New York City to process tobacco, cigars, and snuff. The ‘cottage’ would serve as a summer retreat for Lorillard and his family for the summer months. The home was designed by one of the premier architectural firms in the country at the time, Peabody & Stearns, who specialized in high-style country estates. In 1885, Lorrilard used his family land in Orange County, New York, to lay out a new residential colony as a playground for New York’s wealthiest residents during the summer months. The colony is known as Tuxedo Park. He sold The Breakers to Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1885 and the family would summer in the massive Queen Anne style estate for just seven years until a fire destroyed the home. The detached children’s cottage (also designed in 1878 by Peabody & Stearns) survived the fire and remains on the site. The Vanderbilt’s decided to erect a fireproof house immediately, and the result is the massive limestone mansion we can tour today.

The Breakers // 1895

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.