Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Looking Back at the Gilded Age

The entrance to The Marble House once owned by William Vanderbilt
This blog post was written on October 10 and being published now. Thanks for your patience!

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 d├ęcor 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.


  1. A friend of mine used to live in Rhode Island and would tell me about the mansions there. Thanks to this post, I have a better idea of what he was talking about! (Did you take the photos yourself? If so, good job!)

    1. HI YTSL -- Yes these were only two of about 10 or 12 of the ones that are looked after by the Preservation Society. Others are inhabited by people and are obviously not as fancy! We were not allowed to take pictures of the interiors, and wish we could have because they were really over the top in terms of nouveau riche!

  2. This is lovely!!! Beautiful piece as usual... I thoroughly enjoyed the pictures, the perspectives, but especially the descriptions and narratives...

    Boom Lift Rental