Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Breakers Mansion: A Nice Little 70-Room Cottage

"Newport Mansion: The Breakers"
New England Antiques Journal (July, 2006)

"Opulence is a word easily applied to the grandest of Newport Rhode Island's summer 'cottages' - The Breakers. The 70-room house was built on the grandest scale, designed to be splendid in every detail, yet including family quarters that could almost be described as intimate...."

(from Patrick O'Connor, courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County, via New England Antiques Journal, used w/o permission)

"...Italian Renaissance Palazzo
In 1892 a fire destroyed the original wooden structure on the site and Cornelius Vanderbilt II commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to replace it with an Indiana limestone Italian Renaissance palazzo inspired by the sixteenth-century palaces of Genoa and Turin. It was to be constructed of non-flammable materials and was completed with amazing speed by a team of some 2,500 craftsmen and artisans between 1893 and 1895. The family took residence immediately, and in August 1895, the Vanderbilt's daughter, Gertrude, celebrated her coming out party in the house....

(from John Corbett, courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County, via New England Antiques Journal, used w/o permission)

That's The Breaker's dining room. You could just about put my family's first house on the floor. By volume, it's quite a bit bigger. That's also what the first floor was supposed to be like: big, impressive, just the thing for having a few hundred of your close personal friends over for an evening.

The second and third floor, according to the article, were where the Vanderbilts actually lived - and was designed on a more human, domestic scale.

Speaking of domestic - this house was designed about a century ago. Things were different then - including what sort of a staff it took to maintain a house. These days, in America, all but the very rich do their own maintenance and domestic chores. Even upscale mansions don't seem to have room for a very large domestic staff - although I'm no expert on that.

A century ago, folks like the Vanderbilts didn't have labor-saving appliances. They had a staff that made the house go.

"...Everywhere there are very narrow passageways for servants and footmen for the purpose of hanging coats, delivering trays, and running errands. The servants were almost inconspicuous and the intent was to make it appear that the house was run almost by magic. The mansion is installed with a very sophisticated servant communication system. Initially, it consisted of a call bell system monitored from the butler's pantry. Speaker tubes were connected to the family quarters as well. A 70-room house with three full floors requires an enormous staff. In the north wing alone there are 33 staff bedrooms. Caretakers also lived at the cottage by the gates and more lived off-site by the cutting gardens, greenhouses, and carriage house...."

One of my relatives had a house (on a smaller scale) with that sort of internal infrastructure. During the Great Depression, my kinsman had cash - and the man who owned the house needed cash rather badly. As a result, I had the chance to see the marvelously efficient layout of service stairs and call bells - but that's getting off-topic.

The New England Antiques Journal article gives a pretty good description of this old house, and how it ties in with America's history.

There's more about The Breakers, on another website:Related post:
I'd better explain about me, my extended family, and that mini-mansion my relative bought. My ancestors, and their cousins, uncles, and aunts, weren't all that rich - with a few exceptions - but they weren't all that poor, either. Except for the ones who might have considered a job in The Breakers as a huge upward career move: getting to work indoors would have been a big plus.

My current extended family is about the same way. Some of us are more-or-less in the position of my household: with a roof over the head, walls to keep the wind out, a solid floor and amenities that were beyond the dreams of emperors not all that long ago.

Others are fairly well-to-do, even by American standards.

I think it doesn't matter so much, how much wealth a person has. What matters is learning to be content with what one has. I'm still working on that.

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