Magnificent and Monstrous Masterpieces Called Mansions

Newport, RI houses some of the largest, um, houses in the United States. Lucky us, we got to visit a few of them today (July 6, 2017). The ones that we toured were the Breakers, the Marble House, and Rosecliff (though not in that order). The Breakers is the biggest mansion in Newport and was built, owned, and lived in by some of the Vanderbilt family  during the Gilded Age.

Three Important Tidbits About the Gilded Age Millionaires

  1. All of them had a lot of money and not a whole lot to do with it so they created a social ladder based on money and how you showed it off.
  2. These mansions fit for kings, yeah, they called them cottages. That’s right, they had this huge monolith, and it was just the summer cottage on the seashore that they spent a few weeks in.
  3. To be prominent you had to be high up on the social ladder, to be high up on the social ladder your parties had to be gossiped about, your house had to be extravagant, your maids invisible, your fortune secure (or at least thought to be), your financial worries slim and/or not noticable to guests, and your lifestyle exaggerated , excessive, and expensive (of course).

Three Things to Know About the Vanderbilt Family

  1. Their fortune was made in the railroad business and was doubled later on.
  2. They had a LOT OF MONEY and they certainly did know how to spend it and how to show it off.
  3. They were all big in the social scene and some of them were huge trend-setters.

“I don’t care half so much about making money as I do about making my point, and coming out ahead.” – Cornelius Vanderbilt

So we went to see the Breakers first, which was built and first owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. It is huge; the largest mansion that I’ve probably ever seen. And the interior, oh the interior! It was downright fantastic, and not how fantastic means today; I mean fantasy-like. It was like a palace, full of wonder, mystery, and gold. Lots of gold. In the Breakers, some of the walls had actual platinum on them like wallpaper. It was just amazing.

image3This piano was in the music room. It’s a Steinway grand piano and was what the children played everyday for their lessons as every Vanderbilt had to learn an instrument, to help climb that social ladder.

Rosecliff was impressive too and it was built, designed, and first owned by Hermann Olerichs and his wife Theresa Fair Olerichs. It was huge as well and had some beautiful gardens (I especially liked the rose gardens). I saw a pet cemetery with three graves, right next to the house. Rosecliff was also where they filmed the Great Gatsby movie. They also were featuring an exhibit of outfits from Pierre Cardin’s personal collection of designs. If you don’t know, Pierre Cardin is a French-Italian fashion designer who focuses on geometric shapes in his work, ignoring the feminine build. The dresses and jumpsuits were cool and had interesting design. 
Last we went to Marble House, another mansion designed, built, and first owned by Vanderbilts, though this was the property of Mr. And Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt. It has 50 rooms and a whole lot more widows windows. This monstrosity masterpiece boasts 500,000 cubic feet of marble in the house. There’s a lot. It also has a lot of hydrangeas on the front lawn, which I got some nice pictures of. The kitchens in these houses were HUGE and really quite fantastic. All of them had these long stoves and copper pots hanging from the ceilings. Large marble mortar and pestles for grinding spices and entire rooms devoted to making pastries and cakes. They were just huge. But if you were one of the 20+ servants all bustling in and out of the kitchen and all through the basement (that’s where the servants worked and sometimes slept, depending on the house) it probably wouldn’t seem so huge…
I really enjoyed the Marble House, but the Breakers and Rosecliff were awesome too. The other Vanderbilt mansion (yes, there’s more) in Rhinbeck, NY was, well, small compared to these ones. Though, the comparison isn’t very fair as the Rhinbeck mansion had all furniture covered during the construction there. Overall the mansions were really cool and gave an almost unreal look into the exuberant and excessive lifestyles led by the Gilded Age millionaires.




10 thoughts on “Magnificent and Monstrous Masterpieces Called Mansions

  1. Great post, E-liz!! Love your insight!! Did you know that a descendent of the Vanderbilts–Gloria–was also a fashion designer in the 70s and 80s–she was especially known for her designer jeans. The style of her line of clothes and Pierre Cardin’s were very similar. As for the title of your post, not sure if you know how much I actually, absolutely, adore alliteration!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! Elizabeth, this was an awesome history lesson… we had no idea about all this social milieu behind these mansions. Can’t wait to read more of your analysis!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elizabeth- loved the blog and history. Quite a time in American History. Learned a lot – keep the stories coming as they are so enjoyable to read

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Super interesting. All that money and for what?? I suppose I should be happy the Gilded Age barons left us with such things as Vanderbilt U., Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Park, etc… but do you think such wealth is justified? Was the existence of such wealth a net positive to society?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see what you mean and in some ways I think that wealth (even insane amounts like the families of that age had) can be justified. In this country you can move from social class to class (theoretically), and their wealth can be seen as an embodiment of that. Cornelius Vanderbilt set off with 20 bucks, bought a ferry boat and started his vast fortune there. Sometimes the rich gave back to their community like Vanderbilt U. and Carnegie Hall, but they wasted most of their money on these huge mansions and outrageous possessions, so it seems like it depends on how you look at it. And whether you see the houses as of historical importance or useless monoliths that waste valuable space.


  5. It is in point of fact a nice and useful piece of information. I’m satisfied that you simply
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    Liked by 1 person

  6. I went to Newport last year and saw some of these mansions. Amazing. The servants tour was as interesting or more interesting to me. Did you guys get to go on it? I’m wondering since you mentioned the kitchens and all


  7. Wonderful post! Loved all the great detail –
    Really have a sense of the “haves” and “have nots”. Such an interesting slice of American History. Keep me coming


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