Behold the White Elephant

Dear Reader,

There is nothing that old money cannot buy. Newport, Rhode Island is certainly an “old money” town. Streets are lined with mansions belonging to 19th century robber barons and captains of industry. Less than a mile south of the central commerce area, the streets begin to change. The sidewalks become narrower and the properties are lined with walls and fences tall and robust and enough to keep out the riff raff. Many of these estates are now owned by the “Preservation Society of Newport County,” which is a private, non-profit. For a price, visitors can tour these magnificent manors with the aid of an audio guide or on a tour. Perhaps, the most famous house owned by the organization is “The Breakers,” which was the Vanderbilt family summer home. Intrigued by this large structure, my boyfriend and I sprung for a tour.

The Breakers was built in 1895 in an Italian Renaissance style under Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who made his fortune in the railroad and shipping industries. With four floors, a basement, over 30 bedrooms for family, servants, and guests, and around 20 bathrooms—this building is a testament to the overindulgence and conspicuous consumption of the Gilded age. The house was designed to showcase the family’s wealth and entertain high profile, high-net worth individuals.

Upon entering the house, we were given an audio tour guide, which was a touchscreen, ipod-like device. First, we entered the great room, which had ceilings that rose two stories, with paintings, and architectural, rococo flourishes. Underneath the main staircase hid a grotto, with a small water fountain. We continued on to the spacious breakfast room, with an oriental rug that cost more than I make in a year, and, then, the dining room that could easily be mistaken for the Palace of Versailles in France or the Summer Palace in Russia.

In addition to describing the architectural style and the history of the estate, the audio guide also included small anecdotes from Vanderbilt family members and architectural critics. According to one historian, The Breakers began to take on a negative public perception by 1907. Writer Henry James described the Newport mansions as “white elephants,” meaning that these monoliths were “beautiful but useless.” In fact, the opinion of many critics is that this house does not contain any real architectural merit. For example, we saw angels carved in stone over a doorway that were lying right in front of a steam-powered train. Seeing Italian renaissance style angels in the same frame as an American locomotive, would be like seeing a painting of Alexander Graham Bell fiddling with an iPhone.

The second floor of the house was grand and spacious, however, more conservative and conventional in its stylings. Upstairs also offered the most spectacular view of the backyard and blue ocean beyond. If a grand house must be built, at least let it be one with a billion-dollar view. Before heading out, we navigated back downstairs through the servant’s and butler’s staircase. The house is segregated in a way that allows the waitstaff to navigate their way through special passages in the house and answer family members’ beck and call through phone systems and buzzers located along several walls.

As time passed, the Vanderbilts had trouble holding onto the property. The patriarch, Cornelius, died just four years after it was built in 1899 of cerebral hemorrhaging. His wife died in 1934 and bequeathed the estate to her youngest daughter, a Countess. By the 1940s, it was clear that the house was becoming too much to handle, and the family began to lease it out to the Preservation Society of Newport County for the symbolic price of $1 per year. In 1972, the Society bought the estate and most of its furnishings for today’s equivalent of $2.2 million. Today, if you are willing to fork over $26, you can experience a few sections of the house through an entertaining and informative audio tour. At first, I was hesitant to pay so much just to see the inside of a house, however, I am glad that I took this opportunity. I learned a lot, I saw a lot, and I experienced a few “awe” moments (more here).

The Breakers is a window into a different time. I saw a number of mansions on my walks around Newport and am glad that I had a chance to behold what is inside the wrought iron gates and stone walls of this old-monied fortress. While the critics lambast the property as gaudy, highfalutin, and extravagant, in my opinion, for $26 this house was well worth the price 😉



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