The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island (3)

The view of The Breakers in Newport, seen from the south side of the property, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was apparently taken around the same time as the one in the previous post, and shows the southeastern and southwestern sides of The Breakers, around the time that it was completed in 1895. The Classical Revival-style mansion was the work of noted architect Richard Morris Hunt, and the grounds of the 14-acre property were designed by landscape architect Ernest W. Bowditch. Some of this landscaping is visible in this scene, including the south parterre, which was planted with a variety of flowers in its formal garden.

The Breakers was the largest of the many opulent mansions that were built in Newport during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was originally the summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice. Cornelius had inherited a substantial fortune from his father, William Henry Vanderbilt, and his grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and upon his death in 1899 he had a net worth of about $73 million – equivalent to about $2.2 billion today. The house would remain in the family for several more generations, with their daughter Gladys Széchenyi inheriting the property after Alice’s death in 1934, and Gladys’s daughter Sylvia inheriting it in 1968.

During this time, the house itself remained well-preserved, but the grounds underwent some changes. The 1938 hurricane caused only minimal damage to the house, but it significantly altered Bowditch’s landscaping. Over the years, the landscaping also suffered from neglect, and by the late 1950s the garden here on the south parterre were replaced with turf. Beginning in 1948, The Breakers was leased to the Preservation Society of Newport County for the nominal sum of $1 per year, and it was opened to the public for tours. The family continued to occupy the third floor of the house, but in 1972 Sylvia sold the property to the Preservation Society for $365,000, with the stipulation that she be allowed to use the third floor apartment for the rest of her life.

Today, the grounds look very different compared to their appearance over 120 years ago. However, the garden on the south parterre was replanted at some point after the Preservation Society acquired the property, and it now features a symmetrical design similar to what Bowditch had envisioned. In the meantime, the house itself has remained well-preserved on both the exterior and interior, and in 1994 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark. It is also the most popular tourist site in Rhode Island, drawing around 400,000 visitors each year.

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island (2)

The Breakers in Newport, viewed from the southwest corner of the property, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2017:

As discussed in an earlier post, The Breakers is the grandest of all the Gilded Age mansions that were built in Newport in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The 70-room, 125,000-square-foot “cottage” was built between 1893 and 1895, and was the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice. The Vanderbilts had purchased the property in 1885, which at the time included a smaller house that was also named The Breakers. This house burned down in 1892, and the Vanderbilts quickly commissioned noted architect Richard Morris Hunt to design its replacement.

The first photo shows The Breakers around the time of its completion. This is actually the side of the house, and it features a portico outside of the first floor music room. Directly above it is the rounded exterior wall of Alice Vanderbilt’s bedroom. At the time, mansions such as The Breakers were typically built with separate bedrooms for the husband and wife, and Cornelius’s was located directly to the left of hers, on the western corner of the house. On the left side of the house is the porte-cochère at the main entrance, and around the corner to the right is the terrace on the southeastern side of the house, which faces the ocean.

Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1899, only a few years after The Breakers was completed, but Alice continued to own the property until her death in 1934 at the age of 89. She had not only outlived her husband and four of her seven children; she had also outlived the Gilded Age and the philosophy of conspicuous consumption that had led to the construction of The Breakers. The house, like many of the other mansion in Newport, had become an expensive white elephant, with astronomical operating costs from the property taxes, utilities, and the nearly 60 servants who were required to run the house.

Of Alice’s three surviving children, only her daughter Gladys had any interest in the property. She was the wife of Hungarian count László Széchenyi, and she inherited The Breakers after her mother’s death. She continued to own the house until her death in 1965, but starting in 1948 she leased it to the Preservation Society of Newport County, which opened it to the public for tours. Her daughter Sylvia would subsequently sell The Breakers to the organization in 1972, for $365,000, although she was allowed to retain a third-floor apartment for the rest of her life.

Sylvia died in 1998, but her children – the fourth generation to spend summers here in the house – were allowed to continue to use the third floor until early 2018, shortly after the second photo was taken. In the meantime, the first two floors have been open to the public for many years, drawing over 400,000 visitors annually. It is one of nine historic houses owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County, and in 1994 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its historical and architectural significance.

Rosecliff, Newport, Rhode Island

The Rosecliff mansion on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1910-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

The scene in 2018:

Rosecliff was one of the many Gilded Age summer homes that were built in Newport during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was completed in 1902, and was originally the home of businessman Hermann Oelrichs (1850-1906) and his wife, the silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs (1871-1926). The property had previously been owned by George Bancroft (1800-1891), a prominent historian, politician, and diplomat who had served as U. S. Secretary of the Navy from 1845 to 1846, Minister to the United Kingdom from 1846 to 1849, and Minister to Germany from 1867 to 1874. During this time, he maintained a modest summer home here in Newport, which was named Rosecliff for his extensive rose garden.

Following Bancroft’s death in 1891, the Oelrichs purchased the Rosecliff property. The old house was demolished, and they hired the prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to design a new, larger, and far more elegant replacement. Most of the design work was done by Stanford White, whose earlier Newport commissions included the Isaac Bell House. Although built less than 20 years after the Isaac Bell House, Rosecliff represented a significant shift in White’s designs, from the Shingle style of the 1880s to the Beaux-Arts style of the turn of the century. It also reflected the changes in tastes among the Newport elite, who increasingly demanded summer “cottages” that were modeled after European palaces. In this case, Rosecliff was based on the design of the Grand Trianon at Versailles, which had been built during the reign of Louis XIV.

Hermann and Theresa Oelrichs lived in New York, but spent summers here at Rosecliff, where Theresa was one of the leaders of Newport society. As such, her house was designed for entertaining. Its ballroom, which measures 40 by 80 feet, is the largest in Newport, and it occupies the entire central section of the first floor, between the two projecting wings. The entire house has a total of 30 rooms, is 28,800 square feet in size, and was built at a cost of $2.5 million, or over $73 million today.

The house was built using the wealth that Theresa had inherited from her father, James Graham Fair (1831-1894). Fair had come to the United States in 1843 as a poor young Irish immigrant, but he went on to make his fortune in silver mining following the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada. He also served one term as a U. S. Senator from Nevada, from 1881 to 1887, but was defeated for re-election in 1886. Despite – or perhaps because of – this vast wealth, Fair had a strained relationship with his wife and children, thanks in no small part to his serial adultery. His wife, also named Theresa, divorced him in 1883, and his daughter Theresa did not even invite him to her wedding in 1890. However, this did not stop the younger Theresa from accepting his $1 million wedding gift, nor the $40 million inheritance that she and her sister split after his death in 1894. She would eventually honor his legacy by building the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and naming it for him.

Hermann Oelrichs died in 1906, but Theresa continued to spend summers here at Rosecliff until her death in 1926 at the age of 55. Her only child, Hermann Oelrichs, Jr. (1891-1948) inherited the property, but by this point Newport’s massive Gilded Age mansions were falling out of fashion. This would only get worse in the wake of the Great Depression, and Oelrichs ultimately sold the house in 1941 for just $21,000. Adjusted for inflation, this was less than a half of a percent of what his parents had spent to build Rosecliff only 40 years earlier.

The new owner of Rosecliff was Gertrude Niesen (1911-1975), a singer, actress, and Vaudeville performer who was active during the 1930s and 1940s. She owned it for several years, but during this time the house sustained serious damage from a frozen water pipe. She subsequently sold it to Ray Alan Van Clief, who restored the interior, but he was killed in a car accident while on his way to visit the house for the first time after the completion of the renovations.

The next owner of the house was J. Edgar Monroe (1897-1992), a wealthy New Orleans businessman who purchased the property in 1947. He and his wife Louise spent summers here until 1971, when they donated Rosecliff to the Preservation Society of Newport County, a nonprofit organization that owns many of the historic mansions in Newport, including The Breakers and Marble House. The house was opened to the public, and over the years it has also been used as a filming location for a variety of movies, including The Great Gatsby (1974), True Lies (1994), Amistad (1997), and 27 Dresses (2008). Today, the exterior of the house has not significantly changed since the first photo was taken over a century ago, and it is now a contributing property in the Bellevue Avenue Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark district in 1973.

Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island

Marble House on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1895. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The house in 2017:

The Industrial Revolution, and the Gilded Age that followed, brought about the rise of vast personal fortunes, and perhaps no family better exemplified this than the Vanderbilts. The family’s wealth originated with Cornelius Vanderbilt, a working-class ferry operator from Staten Island who went on to become the richest man in the country through ruthlessly competitive practices in the steamboat and railroad industries. By the time he died in 1877, his estate was valued at nearly $100 million, almost all of which went to his son William.

However, despite their enormous wealth, the Vanderbilt family struggled to gain acceptance into New York society. Perceived by established New York aristocrats as being an uncouth, ill-educated member of the nouveau riche, Cornelius Vanderbilt had cared little for society’s approval, or for ostentatious displays of wealth. However, subsequent generations of the family, particularly his grandchildren, craved this acceptance, and spent vast amounts of money to attain it.

William H. Vanderbilt died in 1885, only eight years after his father, but in the interim he had managed to double his inherited wealth. It had been Cornelius’s intention to keep the family fortune intact by not dividing it between multiple heirs, but William ignored his father’s wishes and left the bulk of his $200 million estate to his two oldest sons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William K. Vanderbilt. As the oldest son, Cornelius received slightly more, but William inherited around $65 million, equivalent to around $1.8 billion today.

In 1875, a few years before his grandfather’s death, William K. Vanderbilt had married Alva Erskine Smith, a socially-ambitious southern belle whose family had lost much of their fortune in the aftermath of the Civil War. Once married, she wasted little time in working to bring social respectability to the Vanderbilt family. She and William built a massive Châteauesque mansion on Fifth Avenue, and held a lavish costume ball to celebrate its opening in 1883, with guests from New York’s most prominent families, including former president Ulysses S. Grant. Along with their primary residence, Alva also built a summer home, Idle Hour, on Long Island.

However, Alva’s truly lavish spending did not begin in earnest until after William inherited the $65 million from his father in 1885. The following year, she ordered the construction of a yacht, which was, of course, named the Alva. It was the largest private yacht in the world at the time, and its 285-foot length was comparable to some of the largest ships in the US Navy at the time. However, even the yacht, plus the Fifth Avenue mansion and Long Island summer home, did little to satisfy Alva, who aspired to join the many other prominent New York families who had seaside “cottages” here in Newport.

The elder Vanderbilt brother, Cornelius, had already joined Newport society, purchasing The Breakers, a large wood-framed mansion that had been built by tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard IV in 1878. With this in mind, Alva hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a house that would surpass anything that had previously been built in Newport. The house was a birthday present for Alva from William, and money was no object in its design or construction. The result was a Beaux-Arts style design that was influenced by Hunt’s early years at the École des Beaux-Arts in France, and was based on both French and classical Greek architecture. Hunt was the first American to graduate from the École des Beaux-Arts, and Marble House was among the earliest examples of the Beaux-Arts style in the United States.

Named Marble House, for its prolific use of its namesake stone, the house was completed in 1892, at a cost of $2 million ($55 million today) for the structure itself, plus another $9 million ($250 million today) that Alva spent to decorate the interior. It was the finest house in Newport, and among the finest private homes in the country, but it would soon be upstaged by the other side of the Vanderbilt family. Only months after Marble House was completed, The Breakers was destroyed in a fire, and the ashes had hardly cooled before Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt hired Richard Morris Hunt to design a new house of their own. The new Breakers was completed in 1895, becoming the ultimate symbol of Newport’s Gilded Age elegance and surpassing Marble House in every way except for the price; at $7 million it actually cost significantly less to build.

Notwithstanding William’s $11 million birthday gift to Alva, their marriage was not happy. In 1895, only three years after Marble House was completed, Alva divorces William, citing infidelity. At the time, such extramarital dalliances were certainly not unheard of among wealthy men, and were passively tolerated by New York society, but divorces were considered to be major scandals. Despite this, though, Alva retained her prominence in society, and also received a significant settlement in the divorce, including ownership of Marble House.

In the same year as her divorce, Alva’s oldest child, Consuelo, married Charles Spencer-Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. Alva had long envisioned Consuelo marrying a member of the European nobility, in order to solidify the family’s social status. In that regard, the marriage was a success for both parties, with the cash-poor Duke of Marlborough receiving a sizable dowry, while Vanderbilts now had a duchess for a daughter. However, Consuelo’s marriage was as loveless as her parents’ had been, and she and the duke separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921.

In the meantime, Alva remarried in 1896 to Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, a prominent New York banker whose Newport home, Belcourt Castle, was located nearby. After his death in 1908, Alva was in possession of two Newport mansions, and retained ownership of both until 1932, when she sold Marble House shortly before her death the following year. By this point, Newport’s ostentatious Gilded Age mansions had fallen out of fashion, and she sold the house to Frederick H. Prince for just $100,000, less than one percent of its original construction costs 40 years earlier.

Frederick H. Prince was a stockbroker from Boston, and he owned Marble House for over 20 years, until his death in 1953. A decade later, his family sold the property to the Preservation Society of Newport County, who purchased it with funds provided by William and Alva’s youngest child, Harold, who was nearly 80 years old at the time. Today, very little has changed in the house’s exterior appearance, and it is still owned by the Preservation Society, which operates it as a museum along with several other Newport “cottages,” including The Breakers. Because of their historical and architectural significance, both of these iconic Vanderbilt homes are now designated as National Historic Landmarks, and they are both part of the Bellevue Avenue Historic District.

Ochre Point Avenue Gates at The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The western entrance to the driveway of The Breakers, seen from Ochre Point Avenue at the corner of Victoria Avenue in Newport, around 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

These imposing gates stand at the Ochre Point Avenue entrance of The Breakers, which was built as the summer residence of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Constructed over a two-year period from 1893 to 1895, at a cost of $7 million, it was the largest of the many Gilded Age homes that were built here in Newport as seaside “cottages” for some of the nation’s richest families. The house is situated at Ochre Point, on a 13-acre lot that is bordered on three sides by a 12-foot-high wrought iron and limestone fence. The fence is broken by two gates, one here and one on Shepard Avenue, that rise 30 feet above the driveway. They were manufactured by the William H. Jackson Company of New York, and are flanked on either side by smaller gates for pedestrian access to the property.

Together, these two main gates weigh more than seven tons, and feature intricate details, including Cornelius Vanderbilt’s initials in a monogram at the top of the gate. Other decorative features include acorns and oak leaves, both of which served as important symbols for the Vanderbilt family. Reflecting the saying that, “from little acorn a mighty oak shall grow,” the symbols represented the life of Cornelius’s grandfather, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, who rose from humble beginnings as a teenage Staten Island ferry operator to become the wealthiest man in America. As a result, acorns and oak leaves can be found throughout The Breakers, along with other Vanderbilt buildings such as New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

If the 1899 date for the first photo is accurate, it would have been taken sometime during Cornelius Vanderbilt’s last summer at The Breakers. He had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1896, only a year after the completion of the house, and he never fully recovered. He left The Breakers for the last time on September 11, 1899, to attend a railroad board meeting in New York, and he died the next morning from a cerebral hemorrhage. His widow Alice inherited both his mansion in New York and The Breakers, and she went on to own the latter until her death 35 years later.

The Breakers would remain in the Vanderbilt family until 1972, when it was sold to the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1972, and it is now open to the public as a museum. Very little has changed in this scene except for the trees, which now hide more of the property than the newly-planted ones did in the first photo. The house is now the centerpiece of the Preservation Society’s many historic properties in Newport, and it is the most popular tourist attraction in the state, drawing over 400,000 visitors through these gates each year.

William Watts Sherman House, Newport, Rhode Island

The William Watts Sherman House on Shepard Avenue in Newport, sometime in the late 1870s. Image courtesy of the Cornell University Library, Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photographs Collection.

The house in 2017:

William Watts Sherman was born in Albany in 1842, and later moved to New York City, where he became a physician. However, he left the medical practice to enter his father’s banking firm of Duncan, Sherman & Company, and became a wealthy businessman. In 1871 he married Annie Wetmore, the daughter of prominent merchant William Shepard Wetmore. Originally from Vermont, Wetmore had been among the early summer residents in Newport, and built his Chateau-sur-Mer mansion on Bellevue Avenue in 1852.

A few years after their marriage, the Shermans built their own house on part of Annie’s late father’s property, just to the south of Chateau-sur-Mer on the opposite side of Shepard Avenue. For the design, they hired Henry H. Richardson, a recently-established architect who was already well on his way to becoming one of the most influential in American history. He is best known for pioneering the Richardsonian Romanesque style that was prevalent throughout the late 19th century, and designed a number of churches, railroad stations, libraries, and other public buildings. He did not design many private residences, but the Sherman house would become one of his most important works and would help to inspire the Shingle style of architecture that would go on to become ubiquitous in New England resort communities such as Newport.

Completed in 1876, the Sherman house was unlike anything that had been built in Newport up to this point. Most of the earlier homes had designs that were based on Greek, Italian, or French styles, but for this house Richardson blended elements from traditional English and American architecture, giving it a unique appearance that stood out among the other summer cottages in Newport. The house’s exterior, particularly the use of wooden shingles on the upper floors, proved highly influential, and the house became a prototype for Shingle-style architecture of the 1880s and 1890s. Richardson himself designed very few other houses, though, and  it would be two of his former assistants, Charles McKim and Stanford White, who would go on to create some of the finest Shingle-style homes.

Stanford White was involved in the design of the house, and he would play a larger role a few years later, when his firm of McKim, Mead & White was hired to design a large addition to the house. Built on the left side of the scene, this new wing substantially enlarged the house, while matching Richardson’s original exterior. The first photo here shows the house as it originally appeared, sometime before construction on the addition began in 1879. It was completed two years later, with Stanford White providing interior designs for both a parlor and a library in this wing.

William and Annie Sherman had two daughters, Georgette and Sybil, who were born in the early 1870s. However, Annie died in 1884 at the age of 35, and the following year William remarried to Sophia Augusta Brown, the 18-year-old daughter of the late John Carter Brown II. A member of the prominent Brown family of Providence, John Carter Brown II was the son of Nicholas Brown, Jr., the namesake of Brown University, and John himself would later leave leave his mark on the university when his rare book collection became the basis for the John Carter Brown Library. Curiously, William Sherman’s oldest daughter, Georgette, would later marry Sophia’s older brother, Harold Brown, making William Sherman both a brother-in-law and father-in-law to his daughter’s new husband.

With his new wife, William Watts Sherman had two more daughters, Irene and Mildred, and around 1890 they expanded the house again, adding a ballroom that was designed by local architect Dudley Newton. He continued to spend summers here until his death in 1912, and Sophia owned the house until her death more than 30 years later, in 1946. By this point the massive Gilded Age mansions of Newport had fallen out of fashion, and the mid-20th century saw many of these landmarks demolished or converted into other uses. In the case of the Sherman house, it became the Baptist Home of Rhode Island, a retirement home that opened in 1950.

Because of its architectural significance, the house was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and it is also a contributing property in the Bellevue Avenue Historic District, which is likewise a National Historic Landmark. In 1982, the property was purchased by Salve Regina University, whose campus includes many other historic mansions in the area. It is now a dormitory for sophomore students, and still stands as one of Newport’s finest architectural treasures, with hardly any differences between these two photos aside from the 1879-1881 addition on the left side.