Historic Structures

The Breakers (Cornelius Vanderbilt House), Newport Rhode Island

Date added: August 6, 2010 Categories: Rhode Island House Mansion

Peabody and Stearns, Architects, Boston, were engaged to design the original "Breakers" for Pierre Lorillard. In 1879, he built a wharf for his steam yacht, Lurline. After purchasing the estate in 1885, Cornelius Vanderbilt made alterations to the estate and employed Peabody and Stearns to design the "Cottage" which was erected in 1886 by McNeill of Boston, a contractor. On 25 November 1892 the house was destroyed by fire. Since the erection of the present building it has symbolized the "Ideal." Life at "The Breakers" was conducted in a proper and orderly manner. Early in the morning the carriage book was delivered to the house. Mrs. Vanderbilt would indicate the various trips to be made by the family member, the carriage, horses and livery to be employed. The three major functions of the house were the responsibility of the butler housekeeper and the chef. Besides the general staff of three people in the kitchen, three people in the pantry, parlor maid, upstairs maid, chamber maid and a laundry staff of three blacks who did not live-in, Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt had a personal valet and ladies maid respectively. There was a workshop in the basement for the houseman who tended the fireplaces, polished the brass and made necessary repairs. The grounds were maintained by the gardener and his staff. The greenhouses and cutting gardens were located at Ruggles and Coggeshall adjacent to the stables. Mrs. Vanderbilt made random inspections of the house and estate accompanied by the butler and housekeeper.

The property has remained in the Vanderbilt family, and the Countess Anthony Szapary now leases the mansion to the Newport Preservation Society.

The some seventy rooms of "The Breakers" enclose a two story cortile and loggia that face southeast to the sea.

Over-all dimensions: About 250 feet by 150 feet; rectangular with kitchen ell at north corner; 3 1/2 stories.

Five marble steps in the entrance hall ascend to the main floor level. The marble grand staircase rises from the great hall floor to a landing and thence in opposite directions to secondary landings and thence in twin flights to the westerly second-floor gallery of the great hall. The flights sweep upward in graceful curves on open arches. The closed marble stringers are carved in a Vitruvian wave motif and are surmounted by elaborate wrought iron and bronze railings. There is a fountain within the arch below the first flight.

A relatively ornate secondary, or private, staircase is enclosed between the entrance hall and the library. A utilitarian service stair is in a passage between the butler's pantry and the kitchen.

A small room simply paneled in quartered oak opens left from the entrance hall. The corresponding reception roon at the right of the hall is paneled in carved and gilded cream colored Louis XVI boiseries ordered by Queen Marie Antoinette for the Hotel de St. Aulaire in Paris.

The galleried great hall rises over forty-five feet and is nearly sixty feet square. The walls are Caen stone inset with rare marbles. Each side has three bays articulated by colossal stop-fluted pilasters on plinths. The first-floor bays are arched, and each rectangular second-floor opening is subdivided by a marble column and guarded by a pair of lacy bronze railings. Opposite the grand staircase is a large Caen stone fireplace, its richly carved frieze and hood supported by lavishly ornamented consoles. The hall pilasters support a gilded frieze of alto relievo putti and swags and a denticulated and modillioned cornice. The heavily coffered gilded ceiling contains a large square cove framing a central flat area painted to resemble a lightly clouded sky.

The library is paneled in Circassian walnut highlighted with gilding in the sixteenth-century French Renaissance style. Arabesque-carved pilasters flank arch-headed glazed bookcases, and a high paneled frieze runs below the bracketed ceiling cornice. The ceiling is deeply coffered and parcel gilded. The principal feature of the room is a sixteenth-century stone fireplace from the Chateau d'Arnay-le-Duc, the colonettes of its overmantel framing four bas-relief roundels.

The music roan interior was designed by Richard Bouwens Van der Boyen, a French architect of Dutch or Finnish descent, and made entirely in Paris by the firm of Allard et Fils, who supervised the installation. The walls are sheathed in pale gray and gold paneling designed in an eclectic melange of Renaissance and Baroque motifs perhaps best classified stylistically as "grand luxe." Engaged and free-standing columns on plinths, the lower thirds of their fluted shafts banded with gilded arabesques, articulate the fireplace wall and the large curved bay opposite it. Arabesque-paneled pilasters, inset mirrors and mirrored sliding doors, and carved panels with marble bosses enrich the other walls, and the central bays of the end walls are sheathed in blue-qray Campan marble fronted by elaborate tabernacle frames containing mirrors. The fireplace bay, also of Campan marble, has a console-flanked mantelpiece of the same marble ornamented with ormolu mounts. The overmantel, composed of a pedomented mirror flanked by niches, is inlaid with precious marbles. The side bays of the silver and gold-leafed ceiling are deeply coffered, and the flat central portion is frescoed in the neo-classical manner and includes figures symbolizing Music, Harmony, Melody and Song.

The morning roan in the same style as the music room was also designed by Van der Boyen and executed by Allard et Fils. Ionic pilasters articulate the bays. The general tonality is a warm gray to accord with representations of eight of the nine muses painted in oil on silver leaf in the corner panels. (Polyimnia was emitted for lack of a ninth panel.) The four elements are painted in grisaille on the mahogany sliding doors, and the four seasons, represented on the ceiling, complete the program of allegorical paintings in the Italian Renaissance manner.

The three-bayed loggia between the morning room and the billiard room is open on the seaward side. The groin vaulted ceiling and the tympana of the limestone end walls are embellished with mosaics of formal neo-Renaissance motifs in comparatively muted tones.

The billiard room, designed by Hunt, is sheathed throughout in pale gray-green Cippolino marble with yellow alabaster, blind arches above which are alabaster frames with inserts of precious marbles. The large central panel of the white mosaic ceiling depicts a mother and two children at a Roman bath. Winged putti in high relief bear an oval marble boss on the frieze of the large marble mantelpiece of this room.

The state dining roan is in many respects the most sumptuous room in the house. Excepting the great hall, it is also the largest, measuring forty-two by fifty-eight feet on plan and rising fully two stories high. Twelve free-standing red alabaster monolithic columns with gilded bronze Corinthian capitals support an entablature that includes a swag-enriched frieze and a boldly projecting modilioned cornice. The Cippolino marble hooded chimney piece stands against a background of silver leaf painted in a Renaissance pattern. A window centered on the long interior wall affords a view of the fountain under the grand staircase. Above the doors are bas relief roundels in elaborate gilded mantling. Over the cornice, the tympana of the end walls are frescoed. Lavishly ornamented urns on podia above the columns flank life-sized sculptured nude figures seated amid a plethora of fruit below an oeil-de-boeuf window. Each of the side bays contains a similar pair and window within the groins supported by the columns. Above highly ornamented pendentives and the end tympana, a lavish secondary cornice surrounds three magnificently framed ceiling paintings, the large central one representing Aurora in her chariot. The panoply of rich materials and splendid ornament in this room remains unexcelled in America even by the finest movie palaces of the 1920s.

The pale green and gold Rococo panels of the breakfast room, or family dining room, are said to have come from a French mansion dating from the reign of Louis XV. Several of the panels contain delicately carved trophies of musical instruments. The relatively simple mantelpiece in this room is carved from Paonazetto marble.

The butler's pantry contains a warming oven and glazed cupboards for china and glass. The cupboards are on both the main floor and on a mezzanine, or balcony, that runs around the noom. A silver safe adjoins the butler's pantry, and a passage leading to the kitchen is fitted up for flower arranging. The very large kitchen is two stories high. A coal range and broiler with mechanical spit occupy most of one side.

Suites composed of sitting rooms, bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms occupy the second floor. The ten rooms open off the gallery of the great hall and are far less elaborate than the first-floor rooms. The sleeping apartment interiors were designed by Ogden Codman in a restrained Louis XVI manner. The general tonality is antique ivory, often with panels of inset figured fabric, as advocated by Elsie De Wolf. Each suite has a tiled bathroom. The upper loggia ceiling is painted to represent three canopies against a blue sky.

The lighting fixtures are specially designed to accord with the styles of the rooms in which they are placed. They are supplied with both electricity and gas in case of power failures. The central area of the great hall is lighted by four very large chandeliers and by eight five-light sculptured bronze standards in the Italian Renaissance manner. The library has bronze sconces, each bearing five electric candles-and two gas candles. The music room contains two large crystal chandeliers with gas candles and a very few electric candles and a bronze crystal-hung sconce of six electric candles on each of the fourteen free-standing columns. Bronze sconces combining gas and electricity light the morning room. The loggia has wrought iron standards, and a wrought iron fixture hangs over the billiard table. The billiard room walls bear bronze fixtures in the form of torcheres. The state dining room is lighted by two very large crystal chandeliers and a crystal sconce on each of the twelve alabaster columns. The family dining room has ormolu sconces. The service areas are lighted by utilitarian gas and electric combination fixtures.

The second-floor bathrooms are supplied with hot and cold fresh and hot and cold salt water bathtub faucets. Soft rain water collected in cisterns under the terrace was pumped to a large attic tank and ran by gravity flow to the various bathrooms. Salt water was pumped to an attic reservoir directly from the ocean.

The house, a short distance from the ocean, sits atop the bluff at Ochre Point overlooking the breaking surf below. Placed diagonally on the site, the entrance faces northwest. Three other similar estates are situated to the north along Ochre Point Road. The nearby Ochre Court, built for Ogden Goelet and now housing Salve Regina College, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt in 1889-1891, shortly before he designed The Breakers,