Mere mention of the iconic Vanderbilt name brings to mind thoughts of effortless elegance. This vision is no more perfectly embodied than by The Breakers -- the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a resplendent reminder of the family’s fabled wealth and social status. However, all that glitters is not gold. Beneath the surface -- in this case, quite literally -- a decidedly unglamorous entity kept things running at the manse: a historic underground boiler room. Those looking for a real peek behind -- err, beneath -- the scenes will find it in the fascinating “Beneath The Breakers” tour.
About The Breakers
Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt fortified the Vanderbilt family fortune -- and much of the nation’s industrial growth -- in steamships and railways during the late 19th century. His grandson, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, purchased a wooden house called The Breakers in Newport upon assuming the role of Chairman and President of the New York Central Railroad system in 1885. After the home was destroyed by a fire caused by a boiler explosion several years later, Vanderbilt commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a grand villa as its replacement. Enlisting an international team of craftsmen and artisans, Hunt created a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo inspired by the 16th-century palaces of Genoa and Turin.
Now owned by The Preservation Society of Newport County, The Breakers is a National Historic Landmark.
Beneath the Surface
Following the fire which destroyed the first Breakers, Cornelius Vanderbilt II endeavored to make the new home “as fireproof as possible.” He accomplished this in a particularly creative way -- by putting the boiler room on the street and concealing it from view behind the caretaker's cottage.
The Preservation Society recently completed an 18-month, $1.2 million preservation and restoration project aimed at breathing new life into this aspect of the legendary home. This was no small task. After a years-long effort to find era-authentic boilers, two were finally located at Newport’s Potter Burns Elementary School and eventually donated by the Pawtucket School Committee to the effort.
The “Beneath the Breakers” tour offers a guided journey through the Breakers’ extraordinary underground tunnel, boiler room and basement. Guests enter through the caretaker’s cottage before descending the staircase into the basement, where the behemoths which have helped power the mansion for more than a century await.
Visitors will also get a close up look at other “hidden” aspects of the great home, including its cutting edge construction techniques; electrical and plumbing systems of more than a century ago and their modern counterparts; and direct insights into the role domestic technology played in keeping the house up with the times -- with a little help Preservation Society research into staff and period documents, including the daily journals of The Breakers' chief engineer.
Are you ready to experience the grit beneath the glitz? Space is limited and advance reservations are required so be sure to purchase your tickets today.