a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Breakers, a symbol of the filthy rich

By Scott Beveridge

NEWPORT, R.I. – The fabulous summer “cottage’ known as The Breakers has more than enough opulence to turn stomachs during this recession.

But it didn’t take a century for critics to refer to the Vanderbilt family retreat as a white elephant furnished with tasteless vulgarity. They did that a few short years after railroad magnet Cornelius Vanderbilt II built the 70-room mansion in 1895 on a bluff overlooking the Rhode Island Sound.

Mark Twain was even among those who expressed disgust over this mansion, and others like it, about the time he coined the term Gilded Age as a reference to extravagant expressions of wealth and the social injustices they represented.

The Vanderbilts eventually said goodbye to their Italian Renaissance getaway after it opened to the public in 1948 to raise money for the preservation of Newport’s row of millionaires’ palaces. Today, it’s operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County and attracts 300,000 visitors a year.

New this season is an audio tour that walks guests through never-seen-before servants’ halls. The tour introduces everyone at the front door as guests of the family before they step inside the sprawling grand hall with a marble set of matching stairways and the finest furnishings that were meant to dazzle. They’re told children felt at home enough to ride their tricycles around the room and slide down the banisters on serving trays. All the while, adult guests and residents, in those days, put their feet up in the cool shade of the stairs while facing a marble, grotto-type water fountain, only to be pampered by their choice of 40 servants.

Eventually the tour warms me up to the family inside Gertrude Vanderbilt’s bedroom while I peer into a portrait of her with sad eyes. The recording draws lines from her memoirs about the day she realized she was an heiress and longed for people to like her for personality rather than her family’s money.

Later, somewhere about the time I step into a two-story china closet, the craggy voice of Rudolph B. Stanish begins to dish on the women he served in the 50-foot dining room with solid alabaster columns. He confesses to daydreaming about dropping their dinners in their laps for keeping him waiting. But, he also applauds the family for helping him to become the "king of omelets" after he moved on from being its domestic servant. The Vanderbilt money rubbed off on most of the staff, he says.

One adornment that piques my interest is a frieze or two cherubs above a door in the main hall. One is holding the switch of a locomotive while the other grasps a railroad spike and hammer. It’s designed to mold classic symbols of old technology with those representing new wealth during America’s Industrial Revolution.

Then, I wonder if any of the servants were revolted by this image, and reminded of their place while carting 15-pound serving trays through this door before retreating to their hot, stuffy quarters in the attic.

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