Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877)
Vanderbilt- arguably the most famous name in American history. The name alone speaks of vast wealth, palaces, and a lifestyle unimaginable to most. In the mid 1800s, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt established the family fortune in steamships and the New York Central Railroad. The institution of the railroad system was essential to the economic and geographical growth of the United States. With the introduction of immense connectivity between numerous locations in the country, Vanderbilt’s role cemented him as one of the richest men in America.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-1899)
Grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt
In modern times, we associate the estate title “The Breakers” with a grand palace at the edge of Cliff Walk in Newport, but this wasn’t always the case. In 1885, the same year Cornelius Vanderbilt II first sat upon the throne as chairmen and president of the New York Central Railroad system, the new heir purchased a more modest, yet luxurious, wooden house. Unfortunately, the house was not destined to carry the same lavish legacy that the Vanderbilt name would soon distinguish for itself.
In 1892, The Breakers burnt to the ground. The following year in 1893, Cornelius inquired about a reputable architect by the name of Richard Morris Hunt. Many of Hunt’s masterpieces can be seen to this day around Newport. He designed the current mansion, famously known to this day as, The Breakers. The 70-room estate required an international group of workers to birth the Italian Renaissance inspired estate. Of the 13 acres within the property fence, the main house took up nearly one acre. Like many of the other Gilded Age estates lining the coastal Rhode Island town, the interiors were brought to life by Allard & Sons.
In 1893, not long after the demise of the original house, the first walls were erected on the gorgeous, oceanfront property along Rhode Island’s most prestigious coastline. The finishing touches were carefully finished, and The Breakers officially took its crown as the Queen of Newport. Sadly, with the birth of a monumental home came the death of its creator. Richard Morris Hunt passed away before his current project was completed on July 31st, 1895.
This time around, wood was off the table. The Vanderbilts did not want to see their second home suffer the same fate as the previous mansion. No wood was used to build the core of the structure. To further preserve the home from potential harm, Hunt constructed the kitchen in an isolated wing to restrict any potential fire from engulfing the rest of the structure if such a disaster should spark. The heating utilities were also located away from the home under the caretaker’s house.
Fine details like moldings, interior walls, and doors were crafted of gilded wood. Marble dressed up various rooms where massive chandeliers hovered above. The core of the home attributes its strength to stone and brick while steel beams offered structural support.
Two of the most distinct rooms in the home are the Great Hall and formal dining room. High ceilings decorated in gold and beautiful details grace both spaces. The dining room entertains a domed ceiling with beautiful murals and extravagant chandeliers that dwarf the dining table below. Balconies surround three sides of the great hall, and a second floor loggia peers down from the fourth. Four massive chandeliers fill each corner of the room with a grand staircase protruding down the center. For those wandering the lavish space, a small seashell fountain can be seen hidden under the steps. Many of the Newport families incorporated sea life to some capacity in their homes.
The beauty of the great hall is met with spectacular views of the Atlantic through doors and windows on the first and second floors. This exquisite room hosted the coming out party of Gertrude Vanderbilt on August 14th, 1895. Over 300 notable individuals danced in beautiful gowns and suits for what would be one of very few large parties hosted by the Vanderbilt family. Though they were part of the social elite, Cornelius and wife Alice Gwynne were not big entertainers. Contrary to the glitz that was showcased within the walls of The Breakers, the couple was devout in their faith. Much of their personal time was dedicated to the Episcopal Church and philanthropic endeavors.
If standing in the center of the great hall, the family dining room, formal dining room, and the billiard room dressed with gray-green Cippolino Marble is to the left. To the right, a massive music room with gray ionic pilasters and plenty of gold finishes connects with the beautiful morning room facing the ocean, and a rich, wood paneled library with an incredible gold ceiling.
Thirty-three rooms in the 70-room estate were designated for the staff and their families. It is largely accepted that Mrs. Vanderbilt was able to entertain up to 200 guests at any time due to her large in-house staff. The home totals four floors of living space, with the fourth being for staff and the first, second, and a portion of the third designated for the Vanderbilts.
Cornelius was unique in his spending tendencies. According to many sources, the heir to the Commodore’s massive wealth lived primarily off his bank clerk salary, though he was worth around $70MM in his time.
Cornelius did not have the opportunity to enjoy The Breakers as much as his wife and kids. In 1896, only one year after the home was completed, Mr. Vanderbilt suffered a stroke. Three short years later, Alice was forced to say goodbye, and the Vanderbilt children laid their father to rest. He was only 56 years old.
Of the seven Vanderbilt children, only one inherited keys to the pearl of Newport. After Her mother’s passing in 1934, Gladys, Cornelius’s youngest daughter and wife of Count Laszlo Szechenyi, inherited The Breakers. During her ownership, Gladys opened the doors of the famous estate in 1948 to help raise much-needed funds for the Preservation Society of Newport County. Now recognized as a National Historic Landmark, The Breakers was purchased by the Preservation Society from Cornelius’s grandchildren.
Written and photographed by Matthew J. Niewenhous
Gannon, Thomas, and Paul Miller. Newport Mansions. Newport, RI: Preservation Society of Newport County, 2010. Print.
“The Breakers.” http://www.newportmansions.org/explore/The-Breakers. N.p., 2015. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.