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Battle Over the Breakers: Are the Vanderbilts Destroying Their Legacy?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


The gate at the Breakers. Photo: Edmundmp

Are the Vanderbilts destroying their legacy?

Once of America's once most powerful robber baron families, it is now fighting over a de facto snack bar.

In the late 19th Century, the Vanderbilts dominated American business and demonstrated their wealth by building "summer cottages" in Newport which today would cost tens of millions to build, before even furnishing. 

Now, the Vanderbilts are pitted against the Preservation Society of Newport County over the construction of a Welcome Center on the Breakers property, which was built Cornelius Vanderbilt II - and they no longer own.

SLIDES:  See a Timeline of the Vanderbilts in Newport BELOW

Forbes Magazine called the Vanderbilt  "America royalty" who "lost their crown jewels" in a July 2014 article: "The Vanderbilts’ lavish homes, opulent parties and colorful characters made them the Gilded Age’s poster family. At one time some of America’s richest thanks to a booming railroad business, they have seen their dollars turn to dust."

The Preservation Society, who is moving ahead with the planned Welcome Center, recently shot back to the Vanderbilt Family's claims of strong-arming the project, picking apart the family's arguments one-by-one in a letter penned by Preservation Society Chair Donald Ross. (Read the letter HERE).

"It should noted that while leasing the Breakers from 1948 to 1972 was a great benefit to the Society, the Society was required to pay the taxes, insurance, utilities, and upkeep of the grounds and also establish a major repair fund, which significantly diminished the cost to the owners over the year," wrote Ross, in the seven page rebuttal. 

In 1972, the Preservation Society bought The Breakers -- and approximately 90% of its furnishings -- for $365,000 from Vanderbilt grandaughter, Countess Sylvia Szapary.  

Opponents Cast Wide Net

The rendering of the welcome center. http://www.thebreakerswelcomecenter.org

While the Vanderbilts are battling against the Preservation Society -- including as to whether or not current third floor tenants and Vanderbilt descendants Paul and Gladys Szaparys will remain in the house -- a mounting opposition to the visitors center has continued to emerge in the community.

An opposition Facebook group entitled, "Save the Breakers" has garnered nearly 3000 "likes" (there's also a "Save the Breakers" page in support of the project, which has over 6,000) -- including former guides and Preservation Society employees who a voicing their concerns regarding the project and the process.  

"When I was a guide at the mansions, it was hard enough keeping people from taking pictures, touching things, and going where they weren't supposed to," wrote Jenna Gains, who said she has been a guide in the Breakers, Marble House, The Elms, Rosecliff and Chateau sur Mer. " I wonder how it will be possible to keep them from sneaking in food and leaving crumbs, wrappers and spilled drinks all over the place."  

Jason Heywood, who had worked for the Preservation Society as a House Manager and Christmas Coordinator, said he is opposed to the Welcome Center

"I worked there for over thirteen years," said Heywood.  "The welcome center is not ideal because it would ruin the total Historic Preservation. They already killed trees, the original landscape..  There is a tunnel that runs from the caretakers cottage to the house that may not take the trucks and equipment. They have other options. "

One of the Facebook groups cited the opposition effort that recently halted an addition at the Frick Collection in New York in a New York Times piece. 

"Sounding awfully familiar in New York City," wrote the page administrator.
"Management of the Frick Collection has abandoned plans to expand the museum into what is now a walled garden due to mounting opposition. They plan to start from scratch."

Supporting the Center

The Breakers was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994.

Andrea Carneiro with the Preservation Society addressed the resistance by the Vanderbilts -- and in the community.

"The continuing opposition to the welcome center by a small vocal minority was addressed by Don Ross at our Annual Meeting on Thursday, June 11: "The public process has been orderly, objective and fair.  The public debate, however, has not always been as constructive. Passions have been very high, and while we will never shrink from controversy, the unpleasant nature of the debate is counter to all we have stood for over the last 70 years. Our volunteer board and our employees take great pride in our work.  It is unfortunate that this has become at times personal and unpleasant.”

Discover Newport has been on the record in support of the project - and Executive Director Evan Smith explains why.

"The two key thing here are the visitor experience, and the inspiring design," said Smith  

"The Breakers is truly a world-class attraction, and the visitor experience is key for people involved in destination marketing," said Smith.  "We work hard to present the promise of an interesting and memorable visitor experience. How they perform is part of that experience. The current reception there is not world class.  That's not a knock against the Preservation Society, but something needs to be done. 

"Bottom line, the Preservation Society is trying to run a business, they have bills to pay.  It comes back to the experience.  If it's not world class, they won't meet their needs," said Smith. 

"There are a lot of "ex" Vanderbilt homes, and not every one is big as the Breakers.  The one in Hyde Park, just up the street from FDR's overlooking the Hudson, it looks exactly like the Marble House, but that home is struggling -- tenants, funding, it's deteriorating," said Smith.  "I bring that up as to why visitation is necessary for survival.  Look at how many mansions in Newport became condos, or got torn down -- a lot of mansions were carved up. Visitation dollars helped save the classics."

Editor's Note: A previous version had indicated both Facebook pages were opposition to the project; one group is for, and one is against.


Related Slideshow: The History of the Vanderbilts in Newport

From Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt through to Gloria Vanderbilt to Anderson Cooper - the family has been one of the most influential and most powerful in Newport, RI and across the United States for a century-and-a-half.

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Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794 – 1877) started the fortune that made the Vanderbilt name one of the great economic powers in America with steamships and then the New York Central Railroad.

“Vanderbilt managed to transform $100 borrowed from his mother into a $100 million dollar fortune by the time of his death. His inheritance to his family was more than was held in the US Treasury at the time,” according to one article.

His son, William Henry Vanderbilt, whom Commodore Vanderbilt did not think was ready to inherit his monstrous fortune, ended up doubling it. 

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3rd Richest American Ever

Commodore Vanderbilt's fortune, translated to today’s monetary values, would have been an estimated $185 billion -- which would make the Commodore the third richest American of all-time according to a report in Business Insider.

Among his philanthropy was the initial funding for Vanderbilt University.

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The first Breakers

1885 - Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, purchased grounds with a wooden house, called The Breakers, in Newport for $450,000.

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1892 – A fire destroyed the house, leaving Vanderbilt II to build a new home for his family.

Vanderbilt II succeeded his father, William Henry Vanderbilt and grandfather, as the head of the New York Central Railroad.

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Richard Morris Hunt

1893 – Cornelius Vanderbilt II commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a villa to replace the house that had burned down. The interior of the house was designed by Allard and Sons of Paris, who handled the furnishing, and Boston architect Ogden Codman designed the family’s lavish living space.

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The Breakers Completed

1895 – The Breakers was completed. Modesty was never considered when building this behemoth. Several wall panels in the mansion were made from platinum and the house features a Gold Room, among other rooms, imported from Europe and assembled in Newport.

It was worth $7 million at the time, an equivalent of $150 million today. 

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125,339 square feet

The Breakers, an Italian Renaissance-style estate, with 125,339 square feet, 70 rooms across five floors, and 62,482 square feet of livable space, sits on 13 acres of land overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. 

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1899 – Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s death left the mansion behind to his wife, Alice Gwynn Vanderbilt. Alice continued to live there with her family after Vanderbilt II’s death. 

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Gloria Vanderbilt

Gloria Vanderbilt was born in 1924, and became a bridge between the 19th and 21st centuries as Cornelius Vanderbilt II's grand daughter -- and CNN TV host Anderson Cooper's mother.

From the time she became the heiress to a $5 million trust fund at only 18 months of age after her father’s death, Gloria Vanderbilt was constantly in the spotlight.

Her aunt felt that her mother was not fit to care for her, and one of the most famous custody trials of the century ensued. Her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, won custody. When asked about the custody trial, Gloria stated that she believed her aunt won custody because her mother was accused of being a lesbian.

She married four different times, and some of her other notable lovers include Howard Hughes, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, and Truman Capote. It was with her fourth husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper, that she gave birth to journalist and television personality Anderson Cooper.

She entered the fashion industry when she started a line of jeans and other fashion items in the 1970’s that achieved remarkable success. 

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Next Generation

1934 – When Alice Gwynn Vanderbilt passed away, the Newport palace was left to her and Cornelius’ youngest daughter, Gladys Vanderbilt Szechenyi. Gladys was a huge fan of the Preservation Society of Newport County and tried to help them fundraise.

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Countess Szechenyi began to lease the downstairs area of The Breakers to the Preservation Society of Newport, ending The Breakers’ time as a private property. She charged the Preservation Society $1 a year to allow visitors to view some of the inside of the house.

As the Vanderbilt family grew, their power and fortune declined. They began spending more money on opulent homes and luxury items than they were bringing in. 

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1972 – Szechenyi’s heirs sold the mansion to the Preservation Society for $366,000. Szechenyi’s daughter, Countess Sylvia Szapary, was invited to stay. Countess Szapary began a Breakers tradition when she was young and living in the house. She used to toboggan down the stairs of the mansion on a silver tray for fun, something that younger members of the Vanderbilt family continued to do for years.  


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A $2 million restoration was completed on The Breakers, which was finished by Christmas of 2002. The mansion remained opened to visitors.

“Restoration work, which began last March and is scheduled to end by Christmas, has included cleaning the outside walls, rebuilding chimneys, replacing skylights, repairing and repainting trim and rebuilding the entire Spanish tile roofing system (some 25,000 tiles in all),” reported the New York Times.

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Visitor's Center

In 2013, a $4.2 Million project was announced to build the welcome center by the Preservation Society of Newport, much to the disapproval of many of The Breakers’ Newport neighbors and the Vanderbilts themselves.

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Two Year Battle

After two years of boards and commissions and law suits, in January 2015 in a 4-1 vote, Newport’s Zoning Board for Review approved the project for a welcome center to be built on the grounds of The Breakers, clearing a major and potentially final hurdle for the project.

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May 2015 – 21 members of the Vanderbilt family signed a letter objecting to how The Breakers is being managed and opposing the construction of a visitors center on the grounds of the mansion.

The list of family members included Gloria Vanderbilt, famed designer and mother of TV personality Anderson Cooper. 


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Preservation Response

Preservation Society Responds to Vanderbilt Family Letter

May 5, 2015

There are press reports of a letter sent to the Board of Trustees of The Preservation Society of Newport County by some members of the Vanderbilt family. The letter is rife with inaccuracies, and it is regrettable that these inaccuracies have led some members of the family to be displeased with our stewardship and operations.

The Breakers is owned and operated by The Preservation Society of Newport County, an accredited museum of the American Alliance of Museums. The Vanderbilt family sold The Breakers to The Preservation Society of Newport County in 1972, with no restrictions, pledges or promises at "a premium price," according to the attorney who negotiated the sale. Since then the Society has spent over 20 million dollars preserving, restoring and maintaining the building. That expenditure continues today at a rate of about $1.5 million per year.

The Preservation Society's mission is to protect, preserve and present The Breakers and its other historic houses. There are many facets and manifestations to accomplishing this mission. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Preservation Society's interpretation of this National Historic Landmark is the most highly visitor-valued historic house experience in America. Attendance at The Breakers is at an all-time high and financial support for the Preservation Society has reached record levels, with more than $1,000,000 contributed to its Annual Fund in the fiscal year just ended.

This financial support enables important preservation projects. In the summer of 2014, with the support and approval of the RI Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC), the Preservation Society undertook time-sensitive and essential preservation of the unique, historic underground boiler room of The Breakers. At the same time, previously damaged fence sections were removed for conservation and restoration. No permanent changes to the landscape occurred. No specimen trees were harmed by the fence removal. No other trees were removed except for those blocking access to the underground boiler room. Our goal is to open the boiler room to public tours in the future.

Future visitors will also benefit year-round from the planned welcome center at The Breakers, which has received every local and state approval. The RIHPHC said the welcome center "will not alter the historic character of The Breakers."

This year the Preservation Society is celebrating 70 years of exemplary stewardship. This includes acknowledging our founders and early supporters and their families through many communications channels, including social media. We have employed portraits of Alice Vanderbilt, wife of the builder; her daughter, the Countess Széchényi; and Katherine Warren, our founding leader. In 2014 members of the Vanderbilt family were paid $90,000 for the portrait of Countess Széchényi in question. The Preservation Society of Newport County owns that portrait. As we celebrate our 70th anniversary in 2015, the Preservation Society is showcasing this beautiful painting, paying homage to one of its earliest supporters.

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Current Value – According to Newport Tax Records, the 2015 value of The Breakers is $40,185,700.


SOURCE: City of Newport


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