The Breakers

Newport is known for its stately homes but the Breakers sets the standard for stately homes not just in Newport but for homes built in the nineteenth century everywhere. Designed for Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895 by Richard Morris Hunt, one of the greatest architects of the late 19th century, the Breakers is a masterpiece (and is often considered the archetype) of American Renaissance Revival architecture. The building is listed as having more than 125,000 square feet of space, more than 100 times the size of a typical house of that period.

Located on Ochre Point Avenue, this immense and imposing structure sits on 13 acres overlooking the sea. Designed in the Italianate “Palazzo” style, the house has more than 70 rooms. Hunt also produced several stylistic alternatives for the building from which the Vanderbilts selected the one that was built. This house was constructed following the completion of the Marble House on Bellevue Avenue for Cornelius’s younger brother William K. Vanderbilt and perhaps there was a touch of friendly sibling rivalry in the desire to create an even grander home than the one Hunt designed for the second eldest child of the Vanderbilt clan.

The house was created on the site of a larger wooden Victorian style house, which was also named “The Breakers,” designed by the Boston firm Peabody & Stearns and owned by the tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard IV.  The site is magnificently situated overlooking the ocean and rock outcroppings that gave the original structure its name. The original Breakers was purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1885 and used by the family until a great fire destroyed the building in 1892. The structure that exists today was designed and built in just two years, which is amazing when one considers its size and the richness of its construction. The home was used exclusively by the Vanderbilt family until 1948, when Cornelius’s daughter, the Countess Széchényi, rented the home for $1 per year to the newly formed Preservation Society of Newport County for tours, greatly benefiting the organization and its finances. This same organization now owns this building and operates it as one of the busiest tourist attractions in all of New England, attracting nearly 500,000 visitors annually!

Among the most notable features of the building is the extraordinary central living area, designed to look like an open area courtyard of a Genovese Palazzo. This extraordinary space is approximately 45 feet wide, by 45 feet long by 45 feet high. This past week the Breakers was the setting for the Preservation Society’s tenth annual Christmas Dance, which is now so firmly part of Newport’s annual holiday tradition that the event sold out in October–less than a week after the invitations were mailed! Unlike many charity events that operate under tents to accommodate the large numbers of people, the Christmas Dance is a relatively modest event open to perhaps 250 attendees only and as a result the dinner and dancing can be accommodated in the house itself! The house is always magnificently appointed for the holiday season.

The great houses of Newport were built for the purpose of display but also for the purpose of gracious entertainment and, therefore, they are never more in synchronization with their reason for being than when they are being used for this purpose. Even though, when the house was first built, the Breakers would have been closed and quiet during the Holiday Season, the Breakers never looks better than when it is filled with gentleman in evening attire and ladies in beautiful gowns dancing to a live orchestra, which now really only happens at Christmas!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. Maya Lin was a Teaching Assistant in an architectural history class that Mr. Cann took while studying at Yale. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, December 19, 2011.


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