Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Living the High Life

Although Newport, RI, had a long history as a seaport, it may be more well know as the summer playground of the very wealthy during the late 1800's and early 1900's. On a rainy morning, we took the tour of The Breakers. The Breakers is the grandest of Newport's summer "cottages" and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family's social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad, which was a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation during the late 19th century. Mark Twain coined the phrase "gilded age" and did not mean it to be a compliment.
The Commodore's grandson, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, became Chairman and President of the New York Central Railroad system in 1885, and purchased a wooden house called The Breakers in Newport during that same year. In 1893, he commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a villa to replace the earlier wood-framed house which was destroyed by fire the previous year. Hunt directed an international team of craftsmen and artisans to create a 70 room Italian Renaissance- style palazzo inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin. Cornelius Vanderbilt only got to spend two summers here, since he died shortly after it was completed.
The Vanderbilts had seven children. Their youngest daughter, Gladys, who married Count Laszlo Szechenyi of Hungary, inherited the house on her mother's death in 1934. An ardent supporter of The Preservation Society of Newport County, she opened The Breakers in 1948 to raise funds for the Society. In 1972, the Preservation Society purchased the house from her heirs. Today, the house is designated a National Historic Landmark.  
The tours are well handled - each visitor is given an audio device, and can proceed at their leisure, with side tapes of related information, such as the servant's life in this mansion. I cannot imagine changing clothes 5 or 6 times a day for each activity. The house was built with electricity installed, and an option to change the lamps back to gas if the power failed. 20 bathrooms were available as well. 
Those are cast iron ovens on the wall in the kitchen. It must have baked the cooks as well as the bread! Each servant had one task to do each day, over and over. Their quarters were on the fourth floor, with small windows and little ventilation. Some servants had their children living in the house as well.  
After the implementation of Income Tax, two world wars and the Great Depression, even the wealthy could not afford these homes any more. Many were donated to the Preservation Society, while others were donated to small colleges in the community. Salve Regina College has a beautiful campus in the middle of this neighborhood.  
 The Cliff Walk winds along the rocky shore in front of these mansions. We saw several brave folks surfing in the cold water, timing their rides carefully to avoid being dashed on the rocks by the "breakers"!

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