August 1, 2015 – Newport, Rhode Island
Loly and I took a road trip to Newport, Rhode Island. A place I had always wanted to go.
Since I was a teen, I wanted to tour the mansions of the “Gilded-Age”. They were built during the late Victorian period of America when industries of all types grew at a rapid pace, transforming the country and making some people immensely wealthy. With that wealth, they built colossal mansions all over the place.
I first learned about the “Gilded Age” mansions when I was a kid growing up on Long Island. I also learned the North Shore of the Island was called the “Gold Coast” during this period. At one time there were as many as 500 mansions along the “Gold Coast”. Today fewer than a dozen survive.
In Newport, Rhode Island, some of the wealthiest magnates and industrialists built summer homes here. They constructed colossal estates with upwards of 70-rooms, to stay for 10-12 weeks a year. These magnificent homes survive now only through the efforts of the Preservation Society of Newport. They saved these places and give tours to raise money to continue preserving these grand mansions from a bygone era.
I was surprised by a few things: 1. How much traffic there was to get onto what I now know is an island and not a peninsula. It took a long while waiting on the bridge before we were able to get into the main town district (see touristy). 2. How crowded and busy a place it is. 3. That you can’t park anywhere for pretty much less than $20, and 4. How attractive the town is.
We crawled through the main tourist district and found our way onto the famed Bellevue Avenue, where most of the mansions are. We stopped at the first mansion we saw that had a Welcome flag on the fence. It was the Isaac Bell house. A tour was just letting out and we parked in a side yard of the estate. We climbed the steps to the huge wrap-around porch and approached the front Dutch door. The bottom half was closed and at the open top half we were greeted by a kindly older gentleman who filled in these newbies on what to do.
The man let us into the empty house to buy two, 5 House Tour tickets, which never expire until they are used up. I knew right away I wanted to see the biggest and most famous of the mansions first, “The Breaker’s” where the Vanderbilt’s once lived.
But first, since it was on the way, I wanted to go to “The Cliff Walk,” but that wasn’t happening as there was not one available parking spot.
After a short drive up the road and we pulled into The Breaker’s parking area. To enter the grounds you pass through a 30-foot tall iron gate and walk up the white pebble driveway and are presented with a brilliant view of the mansion. Just standing there in awe of the place, the only words that kept playing through my head were, “extraordinary opulence.” That phrase would play through my head again and again during the tour.
The Breaker’s was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. He was a railroad tycoon, and grandson to Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt – the man who began the empire. Construction began in 1892, and was completed in 1895.
This is how it looked in 1895. Note that spindly little tree in the right front is now huge!
The mansion sits on 13 acres of manicured grounds. The mansion itself is a massive 62,000 square feet in size. It boasts 70 rooms, 15 bedrooms for family and guests, 20 bathrooms, and used to have a staff of 40 servants and maids. Mr. Vanderbilt was able to enjoy the fruits of his labor for only one year before he suffered a stroke in 1896, at the age of 52. In 1899, he suffered a brain hemorrhage which killed him. He was just 55.
Cornelius and his wife Alice had seven children together. After her husband died, Alice continued to run the business and raise her children. When Alice died in 1934, their daughter Countess Gladys Széchenyi inherited The Breakers. As the family fortune began to dwindle, she could no longer afford to staff the mansion to properly care for it.
In 1948, she leased the mansion to the Preservation Society with the stipulation she could maintain an apartment in the house. With the Society’s help, Gladys opened the mansion to paying tourists to help maintain the building and grounds.
Her daughter Sylvia took over the care and management of the home when Gladys died in 1965. Sylvia was also granted life tenancy until she died in 1998. The life tenancy is still in place. There are Vanderbilt descendants living on the third floor of the mansion – which of course is not open to the public.
First we walked the beautiful grounds of manicured lawns and mature trees. The back of the property is treeless, remaining open to the breathtaking ocean view of the waves breaking against the rocks…
The back of the house is no less impressive than the front. There is a terrace the size of a modern professional basketball court. The space was covered by a large party tent, as it was rented out for a wedding reception.
As we walked back toward the house I looked up at the building, feeling completely comfortable, like I belonged there. I wondered if Cornelius walked this same path, looking at the house he and Alice had designed and had built, and marveled at the majesty of how their plans and ideas stood manifest and magnificent.
I strolled about with a familiar ease. Along the side of the house was another stepped terrace with a rounded wing jutting out. We were to learn, this was the music conservatory where there were many musical gatherings and parties both in the wing and on the terrace. I could almost hear the classical music playing on a cool New England summer evening, people dressed for the occasion and enjoying themselves.
We entered grand foyer where we picked up headphones connected to an mp3 player for a self-guided tour.
The first place you enter is the immense Great Room. Here there were soirees and dances, and dinner parties. The room is adorned in all manner of opulence, constructed completely of limestone and Italian marble. There are statues, carvings, tapestries, portraits and even a fountain under the grand staircase.
In one of those dinner parties, on September 14, 1962, right at the base of the grand staircase, sat President John F. Kennedy, and his wife Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
The grand staircase was even designed with shorter steps to allow women wearing gowns to appear as if they were gliding down the stairs. On those stairs, much to the chagrin of the butler, the young Vanderbilt children would use serving trays to slide down the stairs. Chips in the stone steps bear witness to these trips. They also took many a ride down the stair banister.
From there room after room was an amazing array of exotic woods, imported stone, sculptures, statues, paintings, and gold is everywhere. In one room the custom wallpaper displays the 9 Muses of Greek Mythology spread out in the corners of the room. The wallpaper itself is inlaid with platinum!
Among my other favorite rooms were the Music Room, and the wood paneled Library. Man, I could have spent some time there.
Then there was the Billiard Room, where I could have spent many a long evening with the gents, over cigars, good drink and lively conversation.
While all these rooms were beautiful given their era, I thought two of the absolute coolest rooms were the massive Kitchen, and the Butler’s Pantry – the operations center for the entire estate.
The kitchen has a 21 foot long stove and ovens, heated by coal. There is a zinc-topped work table about the same length and there were solid copper pots of every size. Some are big enough for Loly to sit in.
The very cool Butler’s Pantry is a two story affair where the Butler would be on the open air second floor selecting plates for the right occasion, loading them onto the dumbwaiter to the work area below. The silverware was kept in a large safe in the room. This was also the central operation room to which the speaking tubes, and later the intercoms funneled.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Breakers and its rich history.
We went to the much smaller Chateau-sur-Mer, but I think we were mansioned out. We began the guided tour, but very quickly grew bored. By the third room we were done, and ducked out.
The best part is we know we’ll be back in Newport. This will be a great place to visit in the peak fall season, and then again around Christmas to take in the grandeur of how they dress up the town for the holiday.
We headed back into the main part of town and were able to get into a parking lot for $20. We stopped for a late lunch at the Barking Crab. The food was pretty good, but it didn’t warrant the prices they were asking. I’ll admit their New England clam chowdah is as good as they boast, but I’d never go back. I felt they were way overpriced because of where they are.
We took a long walk along Thames Street, and enjoyed the sights, sounds and smells, but it was evident it was all set up for tourists. There were no stores we were interested in spending any time in. I did, however, guide Loly into a large antiques store. It was one of the largest and best I had ever seen. I could have easily spent a bundle in there with some of the things they had relating to maritime, art, WWII collectibles, and old photographs. I managed to leave empty handed, and my bank account intact.
We left afterward, and took a too long route home. I know the next time we go, we’ll be better prepared. We know someone who grew up in Newport, and he’s going to give us a personal tour. He’ll show us alternate ways to get on the island, and better places to eat, shop and park.
We are very much looking forward to that trip!