The Breakers designed by Richard Morris Hunt

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Architect and designer, Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95) believed that modern architecture should draw upon the best aspects of the past. The mixing and matching of styles became a major trend in late 19th century architecture.

As the first American to attend and graduate from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Hunt became the builder for the rich during the Gilded Age. Since there were no financial obstacles such as income tax during this period in American history, wealthy Americans could purchase the luxuries of Europe and enjoy huge vacation “cottages” on sites that expanded for acres.

Vanderbilt mansions

The works of the Gilded Age are evident in the architecture of Richard Morris Hunt and masterfully executed in the three mansions built for the shipping and railroad entrepreneurs and their heirs, the Vanderbilts.  The three mansions that gained the most fame include  5th Avenue’s Hunting Lodge, the Marble House, and the Breakers.

Some of the most prominent mansions were built for the members of the wealthy Vanderbilt family including the New York City home of William K. Vanderbilt which was called 5th Avenue’s Hunting Lodge and was built from 1877-81. While it is no longer standing, the mansion was located at 660 Fifth Avenue and was constructed in a single style from the past–the elite, royal chateau style. The home was vertically oriented with classical detailing and placed on a major tract of land for an urban dwelling. While the mansion shows great wealth and grandeur from the outside, it is an impressive example of wealth on the inside too. Hunt makes certain that the Vanderbilt home is decorated in every spot with dominating ornament.

The Marble House

William K. Vanderbilt and his wife, Alva enjoyed another wonderful home, but this one was located outside of New York city. This home was sited on the beautiful Atlantic coastline in Newport, RI and it was called the Marble House. Also designed by Hunt, Marble House is a masterpiece of 19th century architecture. It was built in Newport from 1888-92. This was a summer cottage for the Vanderbilt family and was Alva’s 39th birthday present!

In an attempt to outdo the neighbors, Marble House and the Breakers were ostentatious and expensive homes. While the Vanderbilts only spent 6 weeks in Newport, RI each year, they employed a staff of 36 to run the house. The house cost 11 million to build and 7 million of that amount was spent on the imported carerra marble from Italy–hence the name, the Marble House. All of the stone was hand carved by European stone masons and the pure block style of architecture was reminiscent of the block style of the French architects. The entrance refers to that of the White House in Washington, D.C. and the central grand staircase ushered guests into rooms such as a pink marble dining room and a gold ballroom decorated in the style of the Palace of Versailles.

The Breakers

The BreakersWhile the Marble House was a masterwork, the Breakers was the icing on the architectural cake. With the vision of Hunt, the Vanderbilts seeked grandeur and classicism in the home for Cornelius Vanderbilt II which was built in Newport, RI from 1892 until 1895. This house has a generally classical approach with some Victorian characteristics: projections with terraces, arcades, prominent chimney tops, etc. It too is a heavily ornamented mansion which is distinguished by its massing. The house was made to have many levels and arcades emphasizing those public spaces for entertaining. The best craftsmanship money can buy was the motto at the Breakers. This amazing building addresses the ocean. The source for the massive corinthian columns and architectural plan is a villa from 16th century Genoa, Italy. The interior is organized around a large central courtyard, covered with a ceiling and a circulation area is the idea for the Queen Anne hall. This is a very public house.

BreakersWithin the interior, each room is gender specific. For example, each room has its own personality. The ladies reception room is decorated in 18th Century rococo pastels and the men’s billiards room is designed around the theme of masculine colors and massive forms. The Vanderbilt mansions provide serve to define American architectural prowess in the age of the Robber Barons.