|The entrance to The Marble House once owned by William Vanderbilt|
Today we landed in Newport, Rhode Island, known for its yachts, glorious homes, and delicious seafood.
|Here's the back of the house -- no pictures allowed inside|
We didn't have much time but luckily arranged tickets to see two of those amazing homes, both owned by the Vanderbilt family.
Cornelius II and William were the grandsons of Cornelius who founded the Vanderbilt empire on shipping and the railroad.
The first house we saw was the Marble House, owned by William and decorated by his wife Alva Erskine Smith.
One can tell by the décor how much she wanted to prove that the family Alva married into was one of the most powerful and famous in the world.
|The massive gates at The Breakers|
It was called the Marble House because practically every room in the house has marble in it. The grand foyer itself is an indication of what's to come, thick slabs of Italian marble that were cut like a book so that the panels mirrored each other.
The home was also one of the first to have electricity installed as well as modern plumbing. Alva hired a French chef to cook gourmet meals for the family and guests, and he was paid $10,000 a month – not a bad salary at the time!
However the story of their daughter Consuelo is sad. Even though she was secretly engaged to someone else, her mother kept her pretty much locked up at home until she relented to marry the Duke of Marlborough.
|Chinese-inspired pavilion at the back of Marble House|
Incidentally he was the last guest to stay in the only guest room in the massive mansion. While she moved to England and became close with one of her husband's friends, Sir Winston Churchill, she was in a loveless marriage and bore two sons.
It wasn't until after 26 years of marriage did she divorce – and her mother testified that it was she who pushed Consuelo to marry the duke. Soon after Consuelo married a French aviator and seems to have lived a happy life afterwards from the age of 43.
|The gorgeous facade of The Breakers|
Her mother also turned heads by divorcing her husband in 1895 and then promptly marrying one of her husband's friends Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont who lived nearby. As a result, she apparently used Marble House as her storage or closet.
The other house we visited was The Breakers, and it is also a very impressive mansion with massive wrought iron gates at the entrance. The original Breakers was a wooden home, but was destroyed by a fire in 1892.
Cornelius was determined to learn lessons from this and made sure the kitchen was not close to the main parts of the house. While there's marble from Switzerland and even platinum on the walls of one of the bedrooms, the Breakers isn't as over-the-top, though it's still a home to illicit awe from visitors, particularly the dining room with its two massive Baccarat crystal chandeliers and 22K gold leaf on the walls.
|The back of The Breakers on a gorgeous autumn day|
The bedrooms on the second floor are elegant, but toned down, with lots of portraits and a few items displayed from the time. Cornelius was known as a hardworking man whose personality wasn't ostentatious, while his wife was keen to entertain.
Apparently women at the time of her stature would change clothes seven times a day.
The Vanderbilts didn't spend much time in these houses – perhaps spending six weeks in the summer here. While the chinaware used stayed in these homes, the family packed up the silverware with them wherever they went – and even locked it up every evening.
|Looking out onto the water from the second floor terrace|
These two homes give a good indication of what Mark Twain meant by The Gilded Age – conspicuous consumption, using classical architecture or design combined with new technology or the nouveau riche to justify their stature in society.
Both homes and several more are looked after by The Preservation Society of Newport County and it's no wonder they do well with the stream of visitors who come here to gawk at such opulence that people actually lived over a century ago.