When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.

Travel: Rhode Island

What the state lacks in size, it makes up for in corrupt Democratic officials. And mansions.


The Breakers: Everything That Glitters is Actually Gold

September 6, 2011

I thought of the beach houses of my youth as wonderful places, filled with everything that made summer great. I now know that they were miserable dumps.

I learned this at the Breakers, in Newport, Rhode Island. Cornelius Vanderbilt II wasn't content with four bedrooms and an outdoor shower, and neither should you be. A proper beach home -- a place where you can actually relax -- should have about 70 rooms and 30 servants. Anything less and your entire summer is a despicable lie. So, some helpful tips on getting the vacation you deserve:

1) Get several billion dollars. I can't stress enough how much this will smooth the process. Corny was the grandson of the original Cornelius Vanderbilt, who started with a Staten Island shipping concern and made $100 million (in 19th-century money), and the oldest son of William, who doubled the fortune by moving into railroads. Their fortune made Staten Island the glorious paradise it is today. Shoot for that level of inheritance.

2) Get a world-class architect. Corny hired Richard Morris Hunt, who in addition to being a very good architect, had to give him the family discount. Hunt was also working on the Biltmore Estate for Corny's younger brother George, and built several other Vanderbilt mansions. Vanderbilt construction projects were, in fact, the chief driver of the U.S. economy from 1890 to 1910. Hunt opted to build a quaint, homey, four-story Italian villa. When it was decided that an open courtyard in the middle might spoil the antique furniture, they covered the courtyard. With a mural of the sky. Also, the billiards room had marble walls and a mosaic floor, making it much easier to clean in the event of a beer spill. That's the difference between a good architect and a great one.

3) Gild everything. Why cover your walls with cheap watercolors of seascapes, when you could cover at least 50 percent of every room with a thin layer of gold? Imagine how special your guests will feel, when they realize that one wall of your beach house powder room is worth more than their entire actual house. Now, if you're worried about too much gilding, you have options: the Breakers also has several surfaces covered with ornate stone carving, 16th-century tapestries, platinum paneling and Spanish leather. It's also nice to get world-class portrait artists to paint you, and then hang those portraits all over the house, in case someone gets lost in your 70-room gold house for several weeks and forgets whose antique French fainting couch they've been sleeping on.

4) Be symbolic. Even though you'll only be living there (with your 30 servants) a few months out of the year, you should make your vacation home personal. The Vanderbilts put their family symbol, the acorn, into stone carvings all over the house. Why not do the same? Just pick a family symbol, go down to your local stone carvers guild and let the magic happen. Just choose your symbol wisely, as ten generations of your ancestors will have to live it. After a long and thoughtful discussion, my wife decided on the Swedish Fish. Friends Don and Bethany, who visited the Biltmore with us, opted for a meatball sub.

5) Try not to die for a while. Cornelius had some minor brain issues, which resulted in his death just a few years after the completion of The Breakers. Historians are nearly unanimous in agreeing that he would have enjoyed the home a good deal more had he lived. His relatives were able to use the house for decades -- some still keep quarters on the off-limits third floor. But this is your house, and you should be the one to host coke orgies while swinging from crystal chandeliers hung from the 30-foot ceiling of your shining gold dining room. That's what vacation is all about.

Ah, Romance

It was cool to see the Breakers on the heels of the Biltmore, to compare and contrast. The Biltmore is way bigger, but the Breakers is way more tacky. Mark Twain coined "the Gilded Age" as a sarcastic comment on income disparity; the Vanderbilts, on the other hand, actually covered everything with a thin layer of gold. Cornelius was a huge philanthropist, and the house is still ostentatious enough to make reasonable people puke.

It makes sense: Biltmore was a private playground far removed from high society, but the Breakers is in the heart of it all. Newport's famous Cliff Walk takes you past all kinds of huge summer mansions, where all the obscenely wealthy would chill out to get away from the diseased poor of New York City. Cornelius and family had to show off, since bigwigs would be stopping by all the time. Rooms in the Biltmore are luxuriously self-indulgent, but the public areas of the Breakers look like an explosion in a costume jewelry factory. The dining room is disturbingly amazing. There are dolphins and cherbus everywhere, because ... well, just because.

Fun fact for D.C. readers: one of the tour stops is the bedroom of Cornelius' oldest daughter Gertrude. She is probably best known as the founder of the Whitney Museum in New York (Whitney was her husband's name), but she was also an accomplished sculptor. You can see her work on the Southwest waterfront, across from Hains Point -- she designed the Titanic Memorial, which stood on the site of the Kennedy Center before being moved to Southwest in the 1960s. OK, maybe "fun" fact was an overstatement. But it was definitely a fact. You gotta give me that.



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2014, Chris White