Detailed Extravagance: The Breakers

Cornelius Vanderbilt II, grandson of the Commodore, purchased in ground in 1885.  In 1892 the  wood-framed house which had stood on the property was destroyed in a fire. In the subsequent year, Vanderbilt commission architect Richard Morris Hunt to create an Italian Renaissance- style palazzo inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin. Hunt directed an international team of craftsmen and artisans, including Jules Allard and Sons of Paris who assisted with furnishings and fixtures, Austro-American sculptor Karl Bitter who designed the relief sculpture, and Boston architect Ogden Codman who decorated the family quarters.


Completed in just two year (1895) at a cost of over $7 million (equivalent to over $150 million today), the mansion behind the 30 feet iron gates (each section weight around 5,000 pounds) comprises of 70 rooms including 33 on the top floors for servants, 750 doorknobs, and 20 bathrooms.  It also boasts the latest technological advancements of the day including electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heating. Vanderbilt had also insisted that the building be made as fireproof as possible and as such, the structure of the building uses steel trusses and no wooden parts. He even required that the boiler be located away from the house, in an underground space below the front lawn.

The Breakers is so named for rocks along the cliffs called breakers. When you look out to the ocean from the loggia, you see the waves and hear them crashing against the cliffs.


But I skip ahead of myself.

Entering The Breakers, one finds oneself standing within the Great Hall. Measuring 50 feet in length, width and height, the space can easily hold a typical two story four bedroom colonial style house.  More impressively, the Vanderbilt children used to slide down the grand staircase on trays!


On the under side of the grand staircase is an intimate space containing a lighted scallop-shaped fountain which called to mind the famed fountain plazas of Rome, albeit on a smaller, cozier scale. Though the overall space was so grand that it’s not difficult to imagine this being outside, underneath a bridge of sorts.


The next room on the tour was the dining room covered in gold leaf and featuring a 16th century style carved oak table that can sit up to 34 and 2 Baccarat crystal chandeliers that runs either on gas or electricity – a seamless combination of old and new technologies.


(photo: Internet)

What I loved most about this room though was the plant on the far left of the photo above – it’s easy to spot as the only green in the room.  If you take a closer look, you’ll find that the plant is ingeniously sheltering from view a glass window, looking out into that cozy fountain alcove. Peer at it long enough and you really lose sense of what is indoors and what is outdoors.


The mansion is full of these playful, “mischievous” elements that makes one do a double take. In another example, what seems to be an ordinary archetypal emblem framed on either side by cherubs upon closer look reveals the symbols of industry upon which the Vanderbilt family built their fortune.


If you let your gaze drift upwards, it could be my eyes playing tricks, but the cherub resemble very much the image of Cornelius Vanderbilt? And are those gourds tied together by corn stalks?


Perhaps I’m simply reading too much into the symbols.

It is true though that the decor of Gilded Age houses are fraught with symbolic motifs and below are some of the most common ones to be found throughout the mansion that held significance to the Vanderbilt family, courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County’s website.

Acorn – Antiquity and strength
Anchor – Hope
Bee – Efficiency, industry
Candle – Light, life and spirituality
Deer – Peace and harmony
Dolphin – Hospitality, swiftness, diligence, love
Flowers – Hope and joy
Lightning bolt – Swiftness and power
Oak leaf – Strength and long life
Peacock – Beauty, power, knowledge
Scallop – Pilgrimage and fertility
Snake – Wisdom
Sun – Glory and splendor, fountain of life

Many of these symbols can be found embedded in the beautiful mosaics of the Roman bath inspired Billiards Room, set against panels of blue marble and pink alabaster.


Proceeding on to the Library, of special note is the fireplace inside which a six-foot man can stand with any issue, taken from the 16th-century chateau d’Arnay le Duc in
Burgundy, France and bearing the inscription “I laugh at great wealth, and never miss it; nothing but wisdom matters in the end.” A quite terrific statement to sum up the Vanderbilts and so suitable for a library.


The tour continues through a seemingly endless number of other notable rooms..

I do want to conclude with this bathtub, carved out of a single slab of white marble.  Aside from this, note also the four faucets – two for hot and cold fresh water and two for hot and cold salt water.  One could literally go swimming in the ocean without stepping outside this house!

This was during an age of excess where among the wealthy, it was required that bed linen be changed twice a day and for any fashionable society lady to change in and out of least 5 outfits depending on the time of day. Now, it would be horribly scandalous to be dressed in a morning gown for afternoon tea.


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