Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Must have been like Downton Abbey

Wednesday September 18, 2013
Newport Rhode Island




Although no one lives in these “cottages” anymore, there are similar houses here and elsewhere with similar extravagant lifestyles. 


Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 002


We are hoping to see two of our four remaining mansions cottages today so we are at The Breakers when it opens.  Unfortunately a tour bus load of people is also here .  SO, we dawdle listening to all the extras our audio tour provides and let them all move on their way.  It works and soon there are vastly fewer people touring with us.  I doubt I would come to Newport in the summer.  Just too many people vacationing.






The Breakers is the grandest of Newport’s summer homes and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial power in nineteenth-century America.  Or so The Guidebook to Newport Mansions says.  Not sure the owners of Marble House or The Elms would be happy to hear this but I fear it is the fact.  I think I prefer The Elms but the Breakers really is over the top.



It has 70 rooms on 12 acres of ocean front property in what was one of the most expensive locations during the gilded age.  What in the world do you do with 70 rooms??

Richard Morris Hunt, who earlier designed The Chalet,  was the architect.  He drew his inspiration for The Breakers from the palaces built for the merchant-princes of Genoa and Turin in the 16th Century.


So who owns this lavish mansion in the style of princes?  Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice.  Here’s the gossip I read on the two.  True by most accounts and fun to read. 



Cornelius Vanderbilt IIAlice Vanderbilt


When William Henry Vanderbilt, the richest man in the world at the time, died, he left most of his $200 million estate divided equally between his 2 eldest sons, Cornelius "Corneil" and William "Willie". Cornelius was older than William so Alice, Cornelius's wife, assumed that Cornelius was head of the Vanderbilt family. Cornelius had also been given an extra $2 million plus the portrait and marble bust of Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, objects that had always been given to the head of the family. Willie was perfectly fine with letting Cornelius be head of the family, but Willie's wife, Alva, was not okay with letting them rule the family and launched a campaign to make her husband and their children the leaders of the Vanderbilt clan. Alice also launched a campaign, to put Alva firmly in her place and The Breakers was a big part of it.  Alva and William had built Marble House several years before The Breakers was built so Alice knew her competition well.

Corneil was considered a saint, giving most of his not-needed income to charities.  Alice was beautiful, pious and rich in her own right.  They met while teaching Sunday school.  Alice was spoiled by her constantly doting husband.  She was accustomed to getting what she wanted.  Apparently the Alva/Alice rivalry was notorious.  But then there was one upmanship all around town.






It seems so funny to me that in the latter 18th century  we were intent on throwing off king and aristocracy.  In the latter 19th century it seems the wealthy were going all out to appear to be the aristocracy.  Don’t these mansions look like those in Britain or Downton Abbey.  :-)




Can’t you just see the servants lined up to welcome the master and mistress home as they step from their carriage under the drive through portico.




We go in, get our headsets and the tour of opulence begins.  The house truly is gorgeous inside but OVERdone I think.  It looks like a palace.  So did The Elms.  And like The Elms, no pictures allowed.  I obey the rules but I do find a few pictures on line to give you some idea of the jaw dropping interior.  Thanks to the internet for the Vanderbilts’ pictures as well.


The pictures don’t enlarge as sharply as I would like but you can get the picture of tapestries, crystal chandeliers, ornate moldings and carvings in the formal dining room.


breakers interior


The ceilings are among the most amazing features to me.  The artistry there is beyond belief.

breakers interior1


This is the morning room.  I guess you can have your choice of rooms in the afternoon.  :-)


breakers morning room



And of course the music room with its grand piano.
The windows here overlook the sea.


breakers music room



As usual we listen to every part of the tour and all the extras so it is after noon by the time we are outside looking at the side and back of the house and the grounds.




The lawns all around the house are expansive.  I’m sure the Vanderbilts had numerous gardeners but I wonder how the Preservation Society keeps the grounds of the homes they own so neat.  And how DO they heat them in the winter??  I guess they sell a lot of tour tickets.


Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 031




Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 035


Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 044



This is the tiled roof of one of the outdoor “porches”.


Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 037 



Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 039



Of course the house overlooks the ocean.  Even though it doesn’t look like it from here, it’s a serious hike across the lawn to get to the water.


Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 042 


Thankfully, no garden parties here.  That will make more sense in a minute.


Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 045



Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 046



It’s 1:00.  We’ve been here 4 hours and we are Breaker-ed out.  So we think we’ll use one of the nice benches for a picnic lunch on the grounds.  NOPE!  Not allowed.  I guess there are just too many messy tourists and gardeners don’t want to pick up trash or empty trash cans. 

OK so we find a nearby park.  It’s a glorious day.  David does the one armed lean back lunch photo.  I read aloud from my Newport Mansions book about the other homes that we might visit this afternoon.  



Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 056

Breakers and Rosecliff Newport 058 


We choose Marble House, the home of William and Alva Vanderbilt.  I want to see what I think about the Alice/Alva rivalry.  We go over and start the tour but then we see that outside on the porches and patios are boxes of things stacked up, umbrellas, tables and chairs.  Awnings cover the back of the house.  There are tons of little worker bees.  They are having the Wine and Food Festival at Marble House on Saturday and Sunday.  So they have already begun the set up.  I definitely recognize the society’s need to generate revenue but I don’t really want to see Marble House set up for a 20th Century party.  Seems unfair to Alma in comparing.  :-)   They very kindly give us a rain check which is also good “forever”.


We leave our car at Marble House and walk two doors down the street to Rosecliff.  Two doors down of course is a block and a half.  They too are having some event and have the back awning up so it is very hard to appreciate the back of the building or see its patios and porches.  By this time it is 2:30 and we won’t have time to see anything if we keep house hopping.  So we stay at Rosecliff.  But that’s for another post.


  1. Yes, these mansions do look like the houses of the aristocracy from the 18th century and earlier. I suppose they might have wanted to show the world that democracy and capitalism could create wealth too without taxing everyone in the kingdom to do it. Unfortunately, they did not have the last 100 years to be able to see things the way we do now. They had to choose how to live with all that money and apparently keeping up with the Joneses goes way back.

  2. I always wondered what the filthy rich spent their stupid money on. On the other hand I guess they created an industry for all the craftsmen to build the home and then all the servants to run it. Trickle down economics at work?

    Whatever the deal, it sure is a beautiful place to explore. And I'm glad I don't have to dust it and wash the windows! :cD

  3. Unbelievable the opulence yet as artistic architecture can be appreciated. I just couldn't live in anything like that.

  4. well, Alice certainly has herself quite a 'tude…. the artist painted her the way he saw her and the way she wanted to appear in perpetuity? interesting…

    wow … to live or to have lived in this or that type of world… maybe I was this rich and I had to come back poor to compensate for being a rich bitch… reckon?

  5. I'm sure there were rooms they never even saw!!! Just cannot imagine having that much money and really don't think it would make me happy. I only need about 3 rooms worth. I'd rent the rest out to pay for the diesel for the motorhome;o))

  6. They probably have all those 20th century events to pay the bills! The Breakers is pretty ridiculous. Over the top. It is difficult to imagine being the head of that household, beautiful as it is. Regal picture of Dad by the door :)

  7. Beautiful architecture, but what a waste of money. Of course then...oh well. Glad I don't have to do the upkeep!

  8. And this was just a summer home. I've seen similar Vanderbilt mansions in Florida and on Long Island. I often wonder what I would do if I had the money they had - they were so terribly extravagant. And though they were known as philanthropists, their business dealings which made them so rich at the expense of the common man earned them the well deserved names "robber barons". I can never forget that when I walk through those mansions. Nevertheless, it's still fun to walk through the mansions and think of what it must have been like when the owners actually lived and entertained there.

  9. I just can't imagine living in a place like that.

  10. Not what comes to mind when I think of a summer "cottage'!

  11. Wow--what opulence. I once visited a Vanderbilt home on the Hudson in Hyde Park, New York and felt a little sick to my stomach that people would use their money for such a lifestyle. When we went to Versailles, all I could think about were the peasant women who marched to Versailles and drove out King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The growing disparity between the rich and poor in our own country has similar characteristics, but at least we don't have an absolute monarchy, nor do I think the guillotine will make a comeback. Sorry for the rant. We plan to see the Biltmore Estate in Asheville and I will probably have a similar reaction. These places do tell a tale about our nation's history.

  12. I agree that a mansion with 70 rooms isn't exactly my idea of a "cottage." I wonder if any of the residents ever got lost in there?

  13. I've seen so many of the palaces and bishops' residences in Europe, and just haven't the patience to go through it all again in the U.S. These people had more money than brains in my estimation.


Your comments are the best part of this blog for me.
I LOVE hearing from you!