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.
While the Breakers Mansion in Newport is one of the most opulent buildings in the United States, a tiny cottage on the grounds always gives me feelings of whimsy. Predating the larger mansion by two decades, this cottage was constructed on the grounds of the original Breakers House, owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, which was destroyed by fire in 1893. The cottage was built as a children’s playhouse around the time the original Breakers mansion was built in 1878. The Boston architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns built the mansion and adjacent cottage for Pierre Lorillard IV, a New York cigar manufacturer and millionaire. The Queen Anne Revival style elements, including the half-timbering and shingles and asymmetry, were in keeping with the style of the original Breakers, and complimented it well. My favorite part of the cottage is the open porch facing the ocean, which has four wooden posts, carved in the shape of figures from Dutch folklore, a sort of caryatid, supporting the roof. The house contains a living room and kitchen separated by a huge red brick chimney, which would be maintained by servants for the children while they play.
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.