The Thrilling History of The Breakers, the Vanderbilts’ Iconic Summer Estate in Newport

The 13-acre, 70-room Rhode Island property has a long, rich, and controversial history, which culminated in 2018, when the last of the Vanderbilt heirs moved out.

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With our feeds now being flooded with grim news reports, we thought it’d be good to distract ourselves by looking into the long, twisted history of an iconic property that has stood the test of time.

You might already be familiar with The Breakers, a Beaux Arts masterpiece in Newport, Rhode Island, which was built in 1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II. But just in case you’re not, we’re here to spread the knowledge and talk you through the history of this piece of real estate eye candy. 

The Breakers, Part One

The original Breakers property was completed way back in 1878, and at the time, it was the crown jewel of Newport. The Queen Anne-style cottage was designed by architectural firm Peabody and Stearns for tobacco tycoon Pierre Lorillard IV. It was built along the Cliff Walk on Ochre Point Avenue, set on a sprawling estate with jaw-dropping views of the ocean. 

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The Breakers (1878), via Wikimedia Commons

The stunning mansion was purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in the fall of 1885, for a price tag of $400,000 — in the largest real estate deal ever signed in the area at the time. Vanderbilt then rehired Peabody and Stearns to remodel the property, spending roughly $500,000 more in upgrades and renovations. 

Sadly, this investment was soon to go to waste, as the mansion was heavily damaged in an 1892 fire that started in the kitchen. However, Vanderbilt wasn’t about to lose the property, and he soon undertook a redevelopment project that would rebuild The Breakers from the ashes – in a big, big way. 

Keep reading: The Three (Tragic) Lives of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin House

The Breakers, Part Deux

After his beautiful Newport summer house burned down in an unexpected fire, Cornelius Vanderbilt II wasted no time in gathering a team to rebuild the property. He enlisted the help of renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt, who’s also responsible for the Biltmore Estate, to rebuild The Breakers at 44 Ochre Point Avenue. 

The second, much bigger version of The Breakers was completed in 1895, and it was undoubtedly the most opulent and most impressive estate in Newport – again.

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The Breakers in 1899, via Wikimedia Commons

The lavish interiors were designed by Jules Allard and Sons and Ogden Codman, in a style reminiscent of French chateaux like The Versailles. The design team used materials and pieces imported from Italy, France and Africa, and the intricate details, rare woods and mosaics were brought here from all around the world. 

The new estate featured 62,482 square feet of living space across a total of 70 rooms, set on a sprawling 14-acre oceanfront lot. The opulent Gilded Age mansion is divided across five floors, and it’s easy to lose track of all the rooms in the house. 

The Breakers Exterior, Newport, Rhode Island
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Image courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County

The basement level contained a laundry room and staff restrooms. Above, the first floor features an entrance foyer, a gentleman’s reception room, a ladies’ reception room, a massive great hall, an arcade, a library, a music room, a morning room, a lower loggia, a billiards room, a dining room, a breakfast room, pantry, and kitchen. 

The second floor of The Breakers included separate bedrooms for Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt, their daughter Gertrude’s bedroom, Countess Szechenyi’s bedroom, as well as a guest room and an upper loggia. The third floor offered additional staff bedrooms, as well as a sitting room designed by Ogden Codman in a style inspired by Louis XVI. Finally, The Breakers also featured an attic floor. 

Pretty modest, right? The Vanderbilts’ penchant for opulence is what ultimately got family heirs in trouble in the 2000s.

SEE ALSO: The Story of the Opulent Mansion Aaron Spelling Built in Holmby Hills

Breaking Ties With Tradition

After Cornelius Vanderbilt II died in 1899 at age 55, he left The Breakers to his wife, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt. After she herself passed, her youngest daughter, Countess Gladys Szechenyi, inherited the Newport summer ‘cottage.’ You’re thinking, ‘not too shabby for Gladys,’ right? Well, think again.

Maintaining and upkeeping a property of this magnitude was no easy task, and Gladys soon found herself overwhelmed. She leased the property to The Preservation Society of Newport County in 1948, for a modicum of $1 per year. Fast forward to 1972, and the society bought the property from Gladys’ daughter, Countess Sylvia Szápáry, for $365,000. 

The deal included an agreement that Sylvia was granted life tenancy, and she continued to live at The Breakers until her death in 1998. The Society then agreed to allow her family to continue to live on the property’s third floor, which has remained closed off to the public. The rest of the estate was preserved and opened to visitors as sort of a Gilded Age museum, and for many years, The Breakers was the most visited attraction in the area. 

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The Breakers, rear view, via Wikimedia Commons

It was business as usual for the Vanderbilts and The Preservation Society for many years, with the two parties living in harmony. That all changed when The Society came up with plans to build a new welcome center right on the garden, an idea that the Vanderbilts heavily opposed

The Breakers Adds Welcome Center, Vanderbilts No Longer Welcome

Despite protest from historians, neighborhood groups and Vanderbilt family members, the Newport Zoning Board approved the new welcome center in 2015. The family took matters to the Supreme Court, but they had no luck, and plans moved forward with the project. 

Things turned controversial in 2018, when news broke out that Gladys and Paul Szápáry, Countess Gladys Szechenyi’s heirs, were to vacate their 12,500-square-foot quarters on the third floor of The Breakers. The Society released a statement saying that the mansion’s outdated plumbing, electrical, and ventilation systems were no longer fit for residential use, and that this was endangering the entire structure. 

Despite the fact that this was a joint statement by The Preservation Society and the Vanderbilts, a lot of experts weighed in to say that this move was merely payback for the family’s opposition to the welcome center. Various concerns had been raised, not just from the family, that the modern structure didn’t belong on the historic grounds of The Breakers. The Society had considered another site for the project, on land they owned right across the street, but decided instead to stick to the estate’s garden. 

The Preservation Society moved on with the project, and the $5.5 million, 3,750-square-foot welcome center opened in June 2018. The center includes ticketing stations, interactive screens showcasing the history of the estate, as well as bathrooms and a cafe. 

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The Breakers Welcome Center, via The Preservation Society Facebook page

We’re not going to take sides here. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that century-old estates like The Breakers are brought up to modern standards. The grandest chateaux and palaces of the world have taken this step. However, in the words of Paul and Gladys Szápáry’s cousin Jamie Wade Comstock, ‘visitors will soon find that the gilded cage was much more interesting when it still had the birds inside it.’ 

Featured image courtesy of UpstateNYer, Wikimedia Commons

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Written by Ioana Neamt

Experienced writer with a background in real estate and a fondness for soaring skyscrapers and Victorian-style mansions. Also loves fancy homes with crackling fireplaces and views of snowy mountains.