The Breakers, the Gilded Age summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II at 44 Ochre Point Avenue, is the most visited attraction in Rhode Island. Part of a 13-acre estate on the seagirt cliffs, it maintains a commanding position facing east overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, the home was constructed between 1893 and 1895 at the then-astronomical cost of more than $7 million.
The Breakers Mansion, regarded as the grandest of Newport's summer "cottages", served as a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad. His grandson, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, became Chairman and President of the New York Central Railroad system in 1885. That same year he purchased the Breakers, a wood-framed mansion from Pierre Lorillard IV. After it burned down in 1892, Vanderbilt commissioned Hunt, in what would be his last project, who directed an international team of craftsmen and artisans to create a new 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, with Beaux Arts and Victorian elements, inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin. Allard and Sons of Paris assisted Hunt with furnishings and fixtures, Austro-American sculptor Karl Bitter designed relief sculpture, Boston architect Ogden Codman decorated the family quarters, and Ernest Bowdtich, a Boston engineer, landscape artist, and student of Frederic Law Olmsted, designed the grounds.
Vanderbilt insisted that The Breakers be made as fireproof as possible. Steel trusses support the masonry and exterior Indiana limestone blocks. The enormous heating plant was set beneath the caretaker’s cottage and joined to the house by a wide tunnel. The finished floors are of marble, tile, terrazzo, and mosaic.
The 250 foot by 120 foot dimensions of the five-story mansion are aligned symmetrically around a central Great Hall. Hunt based the Hall on the concept of rooms grouped around an open courtyard or cortile, but covered them as a concession to climate. He did, however, maintain the structured symmetry, with rooms of the first and second floors opening onto a 45-foot high central space. The walls of the Hall are made of carved Caen limestone from the coast of France and adorned with plaques of rare marbles ranging from the pink marble of Africa to the greens of Italian origin. Elaborately carved pilasters decorated with acorns and oak leaves support a massive carved and gilt cornice which surrounds a ceiling painted to depict a windswept sky. On the ceiling are four blue-green medallions bearing the acorn and oak leaf, a Vanderbilt family symbol representing strength and longevity.
A rounded bay projects from the South wing, accommodating the huge oval Music Room inside and overlooking the South Parterre. The ocean-facing East façade joins the north and south wings with a two-story arched loggia in the Palladian manner—the lower one with a vaulted mosaic ceiling and the upper painted to resemble canopies against the sky. The spandrels of the loggia arches are decorated with figures of the four seasons of the year. The wall between the Hall and the loggias is almost entirely of glass, affording a view of the ocean from inside.
The Main Entrance is approached through by 30-foot high wrought iron gateways, which are part of a 12-foot-high Genoese-style limestone and iron fence that borders the property on all but the ocean side. The gateway was crafted by the William Jackson Company and topped with elaborate scrollwork, including the acorn and oak leaf family symbol surrounding the initials of Cornelius Vanderbilt. A gravel drive leads to the large porte-cochére of the northwest facade. Flanking the entrance drive are four bronze lamp posts, decorated with molded figures executed by Henri Bonnard of New York, mounted on three-foot limestone pedestals with 4-globed bronze standards 13 feet high.
The "Cottage,", located between the side gate and the main house was used as a children's playhouse. A good example of Victorian architecture on a small scale, it was built by Robert Swain Peabody and John Goddard Stearns, the architects of the original Breakers House, whose Queen Anne Revival style elements were in keeping with the original design.
Cornelius Vanderbilt died from a cerebral hemorrhage caused from a second stroke in 1899 at the age of 56, leaving the Breakers to his wife, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt. She outlived her husband by 35 years and died at the age of 89 in 1934. In her will, The Breakers was given to her youngest daughter Gladys. An ardent supporter of The Preservation Society of Newport County, she opened The Breakers in 1948 to raise funds for the Society. In 1972, the Preservation Society purchased the house from her heirs. Although the mansion is owned by the Society, the original furnishings displayed throughout the house are still owned by the family.
The Breakers National Register #71000019 (1971)
Bellevue Avenue Historic District National Register #72000023 (1972)