The Breakers
Wish to marvel in a spectacle of magnificent wealth? Long for a simpler age of aesthetic opulence?

Then enter the world of exceptional grace and style by perusing the great mansions of Newport, R.I. The Preservation Society of Newport County preserves and protects 11 historic properties and landscapes there, and allows entry to the public.

Newport was founded in 1639 as a religious outpost. Quakers, Jews and others who were driven out of Massachusetts for their beliefs came to coexist in what would become one of the first secular democracies on the Atlantic.

A couple of centuries later, its unparalleled concentration of preserved architecture ensured its place as a playground for the rich and famous, such as Jackie Onassis, who grew up there on Hammersmith Farm, a Victorian mansion that would host her wedding to John F. Kennedy.

And like any town where the ueber-rich gather, Newport has made its share of headlines worthy of the tabloid treatment they received. Newport was the long-time home of Doris Duke, the billionaire tobacco heiress who fell under the sway of her wayward butler. (Note to billionaires: Don't pal up with the help.)

Newport was also the backdrop for the infamous von Bulow trial. British socialite Claus von Bulow was tried for the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny, by an insulin overdose. After being sentenced to 30 years in prison, his conviction was overturned with the help of famous Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and chronicled in the hit flick "Reversal of Fortune."

You'll have a good selection of mansions to snoop through once you arrive in Newport, and there are various tour packages available during the summer season.

Options range from viewings of single properties to tours of the famous Bellevue Street, where most of the cottages are located, and even after-hours tours.

The tour guides, strange creatures, seem to evoke membership in a club that meets with secret handshakes in cavernous rooms miles underground. It is as if their lives flame into meaning upon entering these mansions, and they are slightly resentful at the tourist hordes in tow.

These guides whisk you along at an upbeat pace, quite possibly to avoid the inevitable pools of drool collecting upon the Italian Renaissance floor tiles as bedazzled masses absorb the accoutrements in each house.

The interiors contain an astounding array of decor: French limestone, 15th-century tapestries, Russian Circassian walnut paneling, French crystal, Italian marble, blond mahogany and gilded bronze. The attention to detail is staggering, and its equal seems only to exist in the heady decadence of old-world Europe.

Begin at The Breakers

The crown jewel of Newport cottages and a must-see for visitors (reportedly more than 8 million people have seen it thus far) is The Breakers.

Set on 11 acres at Ochre Point, this grand home epitomizes the Gilded Age. Measuring 250 feet by 150 feet and containing 70 rooms, the four-story limestone palace is a tribute to its time.

The Breakers was built in 1895 by Cornelius Vanderbilt II as a summer home for his family; construction took just two years, with more than 2,000 people working day and night, at a total cost of $7 million. (That translates to $200 million today.) Whole rooms were designed and assembled in Europe, dismantled, shipped to Newport and reconstructed.

The architect, Richard Morris Hunt, was the first American to study at the distinguished Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Hunt worked on many of Newport's cottages, including Marble House, becoming renowned for his eclectic range of historic European styles.

The entrance in the Great Hall of The Breakers is modeled on a 16th-century Italian palace. It is 50 feet high and lined with Caen limestone, suitably befitting a house of such unparalleled grandeur.

The dining room is two stories high and lined with 12 massive shafts of rose alabaster topped with gilded bronze capitals; it is by far the grandest in Newport. There are doors connecting this room to the pantry, from which the room was waited on by one of the Vanderbilt's many minions. In fact, 33 of the 70 rooms at The Breakers were designed to house the domestic staff.

The kitchen contained a coal-burning stove and a chef -- both French -- and there was an additional kitchen for the pastry chef. Mrs. Vanderbilt, although not known for her entertaining, ran a staff of 40 during summer and could reportedly whip together a dinner party for 200 without requiring further assistance. (Naturally, Mrs. V. did very little serving herself.)

From here, step into the billiard room. It is fittingly decorated in the style of a Roman bathhouse -- a place for men to play. The Italian marble tiling on the walls is adorned with marine animals and the room contains gray-green marble, yellow alabaster and red mahogany.

The upstairs bedrooms are all light and airy, in the fashion of 18th-century French interiors. Mrs. Vanderbilt's bathroom was furnished with a 1,000-pound bathtub with four faucets, for hot or cold freshwater and saltwater. Gertrude Vanderbilt, the couple's daughter and future founder of the Whitney Museum in New York, occupied a bedroom containing chaise lounges, a marble fireplace and Queen Anne chairs.

The family's wealth was amassed by Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877). He quit school at age 11, and by age 16 was operating his own ferry business. His interests led to steamships, and in his 70s he started dabbling in railways. Cornelius left most of his wealth to one of his 12 children, William, who he allegedly believed shared his uncompromising business acumen. It was William's son Cornelius Vanderbilt II who commissioned The Breakers.

Extracts from the Boston Globe in the downstairs waiting room note the "intellectual integrity" of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and called him an "architect of his own future."

Vanderbilt resisted the temptations of the sons of rich men. He began his working life as a bank clerk, living within his modest monthly emolument, despite being worth $70 million. He continued working long hours, even after becoming the chairman of his family's railroad empire. It was said he was able to estimate his net worth to the penny on any given day, making him a fiscal conservative of the first order.

Coming Up: Rosecliff

Another stunning Newport palace, Rosecliff, is just down the road from The Breakers. The house itself looks like a giant wedding cake, frosted in white and waiting to be sliced up and served.

Construction on Rosecliff began in 1898. The principle architect, Stanford White, modeled it on the Grand Trianon, one of many romping pads of King Louis XIV at Versailles. In case you've forgotten, Louis XIV assumed control when he was 23 and reigned for 72 years. Over this time, France achieved a cultural dominance, drastically changing its coarse, medieval ways to a refined, exquisite way of life, epitomized by the palace of Versailles.

Rosecliff makes a light and graceful impression, and is the most romantic of Newport's cottages.

This grand home was funded by Theresa Oelrich, the daughter of an immigrant from Belfast, Ireland, who happened upon a thin vein of silver that led to the single richest deposit ever uncovered.


The exterior of the mansion is encased with off-white terracotta tiles and a trim of blue marble. Flower urns garnish the Cour d'Amour, or Court of Love, and the rose gardens, for which the house is named, are ubiquitous.

Upon entering the interior, there is an immediate sense of lightness through the vestibule and into the grand hall, which is dominated by a heart-shaped staircase.

The staircase's wrought-iron railings were designed in the art nouveau style, and a carpet of red velvet spills over the steps.

As beautiful as this is, however, the focal point of Rosecliff is the ballroom.

It is the grandest in Newport, and at 80 feet by 40 feet, also the largest, occupying the entire central area of the ground floor. Doors off the west of the room open onto the gardens, and those to the east look out to the sea. The ballroom's color scheme is a simple cream and blue and has a trompe-l'oeil (fools the eye) ceiling of painted clouds studded with crystal chandeliers.

The 1974 movie adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby was partially filmed in the house.

As with many of the mansions, Rosecliff can be hired out, and its ballroom is the most highly coveted spot of all. A Society for Preservation Member confided to me, with a benignant smile, that the rental rate was the best-kept secret in Newport.

Other Travel Tips

The Cliff Walk affords one of the best vantage points to see Rosecliff, The Breakers and the other mansions.

This footpath snakes its way along the rocky shoreline along the borders of many prominent properties.

The path is about three miles long starting at the southern end of Bellevue Avenue.

And when in Newport, do stay in the Hydrangea House ; it will make leaving the mansions slightly less traumatic. The lavish décor and intimate setting ensure all elements are suitably in place for a weekend of iniquity.

Check the hotel's Web site for last-minute specials -- rooms are often reduced $100 over the standard prices of around $450 per night, and can be discounted even more outside the high season.

I also recommend frequenting the White Horse Tavern. It is allegedly the nation's oldest operating tavern and offers black-tie service.

With a spacious fireplace and old wooden-beamed ceilings in mock Tudor fashion, the tavern is both intimate and charming.

Hydrangea House

And it's easy to get to -- Newport has an airport for small charter flights and private planes about two miles from the city center.

By car, the drive takes around three hours from New York, or a mere one from Boston.

Newport's decadent manses and charming location make it well worth the trip, allowing a brief glimpse into a more civilized age -- or not so civilized, if you bump into someone who knew the von Bulows.

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