As we crossed over the Newport Bridge and entered the gorgeous seaside town of Newport, Rhode Island, hundreds of yachts and sailboats greeted us as they slowly drifted across the harbor. Lighthouses, docks, and beautiful beach homes lined almost every inch of coast as far as the eye could see. A wonderfully salty, briny sea breeze floated through the car windows and kept us cool even as the mid-morning sun gently baked our skin through the windshield.
It was an idyllic approach to the coastal New England paradise. Then, we hit traffic. I expected it to be bad on a holiday weekend, but getting through town was a total debacle.
The tremendous influx of cars and pedestrians battling for territory was only exacerbated by the fact that Newport is most certainly an historic New England maritime town. That means lots of small, narrow one-way roads and very few traffic arteries. All of the streets seem to connect with each other in small loops or segments so traffic has nowhere to disperse. Tight quarters also means less room for parking and, in turn, heavily inflated prices for what little parking is available.
But, on the bright side, sluggish traffic through town meant Laura and I got to inspect each storefront and landmark in great detail before moving forward in ten foot increments. Newport is fucking beautiful. I wasn’t surprised to learn that JFK married Jackie Bouvier here. The whole town smells of Kennedys.
Eventually, we passed the harbor & the wharf and made it through the congested downtown areas. If the yachts, high-end boutiques, and International Tennis Hall of Fame weren’t clear enough indicators of a wealthy town, the colossal mansions along Bellevue Avenue should do the trick.
Bellevue Ave starts in the heart of downtown Newport (right at the corner of the famous Hotel Viking) and runs south all the way to the ocean. Along the way, there are dozens of amazing privately owned homes on both sides of the street juxtaposed with publicly-supported mansions open for tours and viewing.
And the grandest and most opulent of all the Newport mansions is called…
The Breakers, named after the crashing sound the waves make as they break against the nearby ocean cliffs, is the 17th largest home in the U.S. and is open daily to the public (for a fee). It was built in the 1890’s by the prominent Vanderbilt family and, from my understanding, the Vanderbilts dedicated all of their free time and money to building gigantic houses to piss off their neighbors.
They built numerous other homes in states from Massachusetts down to Florida, including the largest house ever built in New York City.
As you step inside the massive wooden front doors, a friendly host scans your ticket and hands you a headset. The tours are self-guided and photography is prohibited inside which explains the lack of interior pictures in this blog post. Sorry! I tried to snap a few photos and was quickly reprimanded by watchful attendants.
You can skip parts of the tour or repeat the audio guide as many times as you’d like. Laura and I spent more time studying the sections of the estate nearest the ocean as they were the most impressive to us.
Every single room of this French-inspired mansion was a display of absolutely ridiculous wealth. Fifty-foot ceilings, marble & abalone columns, gold trim everywhere, platinum-coated walls, thousands of rare stones & gems…
I mean, the first fifteen minutes in the Great Hall were legitimately dizzying–there was so much to process that I actually had a difficult time focusing at first. I had never been in the presence of such wealth and immensity before. The level of detail in every fixture and every inch of space was incredible. You could spend an entire month locked in each room and still miss some intricacies.
The Billiard Room opened up to the lawn revealing a remarkable ocean view. A salty breeze wandered through each enormous bedroom window. The bathrooms even had saltwater pumps for therapeutic spa-like treatments and saltwater baths.
My favorite room in any home, the kitchen, was beyond breathtaking at The Breakers. I was able to evade the attendants and hide in a security camera’s blind spot long enough to snap a single photo. Yes, I said security cameras. The Breakers is fully wired for electricity and has been that way since its construction. As you can imagine, electricity was not a cheap option in the 1890’s, but fuck it, they’re Vanderbilts.
There was an enormous cast iron stove which was heated as a single unit with coal fires, and a zinc work table for the chefs (who lived on site along with 40 other staff members). The adjacent room was used as storage for mountains of glasses, dishes, and cutlery–so much that it had to be split up into two floors. Interestingly, the entire kitchen facility was built as a separate section away from the rest of the main house to protect it in case of fire.
At the rear of the mansion sits a huge patio and a staircase descending to the backyard which is almost big enough to be a professional baseball field. The grounds are lined with flowers, exotic trees, and pebbled paths that wrap around both sides of the estate.
As Laura and I relaxed in the shade of a very old oak tree, I entertained the fantasy of growing up a Vanderbilt child–spending summers at The Breakers, chasing dragonflies around the lush grounds, and getting grass stains on my new breeches.
It’s funny how indescribably different the life of a Vanderbilt must have been despite the fact that we all start as innocent, pie-eyed children–nothing more than fleshy sacks of water & bone just trying to have a little fun in the summer sun.