Back in the day when America’s social history was being made by names like Vanderbilt and Astor, the epicenter of this Gilded Age was Newport, Rhode Island. It was here that magnates and robber barons built their castles, using stellar architects like Stanford White and the finest craftsmen money could buy. That heritage, spanning more than 250 years of American architectural and social development, stands today in the 11 homes known as The Newport Mansions, which are owned and administered by the Preservation Society of Newport County.
The grandest of all, perhaps the one that best represents the Gilded Age, is The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, built by architect Richard Morris Hunt in 1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President and Chairman of the New York Central Railroad. French designer Jules Allard assisted Hunt with furnishings and fixtures; Austro-American sculptor Karl Bitter designed relief sculpture; and Boston architect Ogden Codman decorated the family quarters.
The exterior, with its stone construction and massive Corinthian columns, is as imposing as its owners intended it to be. The interior spaces total 138,300 square feet–yet the construction took just two years, an extraordinary feat in the 19th century. As a time-saving technique, the Morning Room was one of two rooms created entirely in France by Allard. The Breakers incorporates Beaux Arts and Victorian elements and features rare marbles and gilded rooms (the gilt is 22K gold), a 50-foot high Great Hall, mosaic tile floors and ceilings, arcades and open-air loggias with commanding views of the Atlantic Ocean (the mansion is named for the crashing waves).
Recently museum conservators at the Preservation Society of Newport County made a remarkable discovery: that there are wall surfaces and ceiling panels covered with precious platinum leaf. Originally, it had been assumed that the panels were covered in silver leaf—but then why hadn’t they tarnished in over 100 years? The conclusion—until recently—was that the metal was probably tin or aluminum. That an individual had amassed such wealth as to cover his walls with precious platinum—Vanderbilt’s net worth at one point exceeded that of the U.S. Treasury—could only have happened in an age when there was no personal income tax. The original cost of the mansion has been estimated at between $7 and $9 million. Multiply that many, many times over to arrive at what it would cost to build the Breakers today—even if the craftsmen who created so many of its precious features could be found.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, had seven children. Their youngest daughter, Gladys, inherited The Breakers on her mother’s death in 1934. An ardent supporter of The Preservation Society of Newport County, the Countess opened The Breakers in 1948 to raise funds for the Society. In 1972, the Society purchased The Breakers from her heirs. Today, the house is designated a National Historic Landmark.
Another of Newport’s grand homes is The Elms, an elegant French-style chateau, a copy of the Château d’Asnières near Paris, built in 1901 for Philadelphia coal magnate Edward J. Berwind. Standing in a 10-acre park with an elaborate sunken garden, The Elms has a grand staircase, fine parquet floors, ceiling paintings and elaborate moldings. But most remarkable is the stunning collection of monumental artworks collected by the Berwinds, including wall-sized 18th century Venetian paintings in the Venetian-style dining room and breathtaking Chinese lacquer panels.
Although the Berwinds did not entertain on the same scale as the Vanderbilts, they did live well. And though Edward Berwind’s work kept him in New York much of the time, he, like many of his fellow "cottagers," traveled to Newport for weekends, either by steamer on the Fall River Line or aboard his own yacht, the Truant.
Marble House was the summer home of another Vanderbilt couple, William and his wife, Alva. In 1888, William commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to design "the very best living accommodations that money could buy." The "very best" was achieved at a cost of $11 million—the most lavish house in America when it opened in 1892. William made a gift of the house to his wife, and Marble House served as the stage for Alva’s climb to social and political power, first as a leading society hostess and later as a leader of the “Votes for Women” campaign. Ironically, the Vanderbilt marriage was not as solid as the house, and Alva divorced William, later stating: "I don’t believe in marriage. I never shall until we have true equality of the sexes."
Marble House, however, reflects only Alva’s insistence on perfection. She demanded—and got–authentically reproduced French design for her white marble palace and Hunt complied. Yet like their wealthy Newport neighbors, they spend perhaps six or seven weeks a year at Marble House, employing a staff of 36, including butlers, cooks, parlor maids, footmen, coachmen, gardeners and laundresses. For balls and large parties, additional help was brought in and decked out in the Vanderbilt maroon livery.
Though it is difficult to imagine the lifestyle that Gilded Age wealth provided, a visit to the Mansions affords a glimpse: the imperial bathtubs at the Breakers, carved from single pieces of marble; the bronze relief of Athena over the door leading to the ballroom of the Elms; the 25-foot, six-oven stove in the kitchen of Marble House.
The mansions are probably at their most dazzling during the winter holiday season, when they are decked out in their most glittering finery. But the grounds come to life in the spring and are lovely through fall. Some of the houses are open daily for tours, others seasonally, so it’s best to check the schedules online at www.newportmansions.org or by calling 401-847-1000.