Gilded Illusions

Erected at the height of the Gilded Age, The Breakers mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, looms above its nonexistent peers with all the regality of a summer “cottage” commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II himself. As the son of the eponymous robber baron of the era, only Vanderbilt—among those in the upper echelons of society—had the wealth to construct a summer home boasting 70 rooms, five floors, and approximately thirteen acres of prime real estate overlooking the Atlantic.

The Breakers mansion is now open to the public year round, and offers audio tours allowing visitors to escape to a “lost era of luxury and affluence.” Shiny map in hand and headphones fastened around your head, you eagerly accept this invitation to pretend you’re a guest at an American palace.

As the jaunty ragtime melody picks up, you begin your journey through time. Suddenly, tourists in bright t-shirts and khaki shorts transform into distinguished guests garbed in rich velvets, lustrous silks, and intricate golden latticework.

You absorb your surroundings slowly as you step onto plush, rust-colored carpet. Built in the style of the Italian Renaissance, the mansion is supported by slender fluted columns adorned with rows of leaves, scrolls, and the occasional acorn—the symbol of the Vanderbilt family. You take note of the minute decisions that chief architect Richard Morris has made. Imported marble from Africa and Italy celebrate your every step. Shelves, carefully crafted from rare mosaics and woods, house the family’s collections of antiques, fine china, and manuscripts. And while there are no tiaras on display, you consider yourself in the presence of American royalty.

You survey the enormity of the Great Hall, adorned with circular plaques of classical figures, bronze cherubs, fruits, laurel leaves, and more acorns. In each of the six entryways stand understated limestone sculptures. Galileo stands tall among these figures, overseeing centuries of scientific advancement. Dante glowers from his corner, seemingly ready to take passersby through Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, and back. Meanwhile, Apollo and Mercury impart a curious balance, representing the fusion of fine art and the rapid expansion of commerce. Richard Morris Hunt and Karl Bitter, icons of architecture and sculpture who worked tirelessly on The Breakers, review the epitome of their grandest creations. Eyes turned upwards, you find yourself greeted by clouds of cream and soft yellow—a welcome from heaven itself. You pointedly ignore the dark gray concrete spots peeking through the sky, the paint crumbling and peeling due to old age.

Moving into the open interior of the music room, you suddenly become privy to a typical afternoon with the Vanderbilts. In this fantasy, Mrs. Vanderbilt stands resplendent in her silk gown and frothed lace collar. One of her hands glides over the keys of the French mahogany piano while the other waves you over, inviting you to play harmony to her melody. Underneath one of many chandeliers, sequestered near a red and gold velvet curtain, Mr. Vanderbilt plays a descant on the taut strings of his prized violin, indulging the children. As a guest, you are drawn to a spare flute or violin, or perhaps a harp, and you join your hosts, smiling fondly as you recall the light and airy tune of the familiar arrangement. You forget the fact that you have never actually heard the song streaming from your audio guide until this very moment.

As dusk descends, you imagine the aromas of dinner drawing the family to arguably the most lavish of the mansion’s rooms: the dining hall. Supported by twelve Corinthian columns forged from rose alabaster, the room exudes an ethereal grace. The gilded dome ceiling, like every other part of the home, is rich in symbolism and synthesis. As you imagine yourself delving into a standard menu of rich broiled oysters, juicy venison steak, and decadent plum pudding, you admire the goddess Aurora painted upon the ceiling. She peeks through one of two French Baccarat crystal chandeliers surrounded by cherubs, ushering in the scarlets, auburns, and ochres of dawn to bless the homeeven as you continue your tour into the night and the rays of sun peeking through the windows disappear from view.

Retiring to the library after dinner, you settle down and appreciate the series of sunken gold panels on the ceiling. They take the shape of a square and bear decorations—of all things—of a dolphin, symbolizing hospitality and the Vanderbilt’s affinity for the sea. Though more modest than the other rooms, the library has accumulated priceless manuscripts, ancient tomes, and papers upon which modern-day theories, technologies, and cultural ideas were built. You know this because the brochure in your hand says so.

The soft light diffusing from the chandeliers casts shadows that soften the edges of everything they touch. You remember that when this home was built, electricity had just become popularly available. Inside this home, syncopated beats of your favorite tunes would echo through a phonograph. You would call servants to make your bed or cook your favorite meals through a two-piece telephone. Outside, a paperboy would throw your newspapers near the front gate and automobiles would honk in tribute, with their 35-horsepower engines rumbling at a speedy 25 miles per hour. In this home, you would be at the center of it all.

But then, you turn your head and peer through the windows leading to the outside world. Looking beyond the gilded walls of the estate, where tour buses unload and baby strollers stand scattered about, you remember that you do not live this Vanderbilt dream. As you walk through the grand bedrooms, you begin to feel the scratchy foam circles of the headphones scraping against your ears. You begin to notice the oily fingerprints upon the touch-screen audio guide that who knows how many people may have gripped. You begin to discern the subtle but ever-present scuff marks upon the marbled steps of the grand staircase. You begin to feel reality bleed into the carefully constructed façade of The Breakers mansion.

As the ragtime melody fades to gray, guests become tourists again. Your three and a half hours come to a close, and you remember you are a visitor in this home. Looking up at the sky-blue ceiling, you exit through the Great Hall once more. You find yourself struck less by the architecture’s grandeur than by the sudden and strange sense of nostalgia for a time of opulence and aristocracy to which you have never belonged.

 

 

Rocel Balmes doesn’t actually know what she’s studying at Yale yet, but she’s learning a lot. She writes and sleeps, writes and eats, writes and breathes. If you think you can help her find some semblance of a schedule (or a job), email her at rocelbeatriz.balmes@yale.edu.

Comments are closed.