As the economically miserable year of 2011 staggers to its close, one must remember that America was not always like this. There was a time in America when the growth of its economy exceeded anything ever seen in the world, before or since. In the 1870s and 1880s, wealth grew at the fastest rate in history. The wages of the American worker rose to become double those of workers in Europe. Great charitable foundations were born. Even though this prosperity benefitted all sections of society, those at the top end were stigmatized as “robber barons” because of their great fortunes. There was envy back then, just as protest movements such as “Occupy Wall Street” today stigmatize wealthy job creators as being merely “the top 1 per cent”. Yet, in those days, the rich were eager to display their wealth. The opulence of their lifestyles caused the period to be known as the Gilded Age and the term is intended by critics to ridicule ostentation. Actually, it’s something of a compliment.
The leaders of this Second Industrial Revolution were men such as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and J P Morgan. Many of these industrial and financial leaders chose to build very grand summer homes close to each other. The place where they did this was Newport, Rhode Island. The largest and most opulent of these homes was completed by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895. It is called The Breakers. In his book on Newport Mansions, Thomas Gannon writes that “if the Gilded Age were to be summed up by a single house, that house would have to be The Breakers”.
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We visited The Breakers in June 2011. It stands on 13 acres, facing east and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. A mansion which earlier stood on the site burned down in 1892. The present house has 70 rooms and 65,000 square feet of living space. At the time, its building cost was $12 million, which equals $316 million in the dollars of today. The architectural style of The Breakers is Italian renaissance. The interior features marble imported from Italy and Africa, together with rare woods and mosaics from all over the world. We approached the house through iron entrance gates with high stone pillars on either side. On entering the house, we found ourselves in the 50 foot high Great Hall from which the rest of the house may be accessed. Another feature of The Breakers is its well tended gardens. The Breakers is now owned by The Preservation Society of Newport County, although descendants of Cornelius II still spend their summers in private apartments on the upper floors of The Breakers. Sadly, Cornelius II was not blessed with a long life during which to enjoy The Breakers. He suffered a stroke and died at the age of 55 in 1899, only four years after he completed the house. One of his descendants is Anderson Cooper, the TV journalist.
We see The Breakers as a palace, and it is, but the Vanderbilts saw it merely as their summer “cottage”. They really were something. At the same time as Cornelius Vanderbilt II was building The Breakers, his younger brother (George Washington Vanderbilt II) was building the largest house in America, which we visited many years ago. George fell in love with the mountains of North Carolina, so he built near Asheville a home twice the size of The Breakers with three times as many rooms. He named it Biltmore House and it enjoys spectacular mountain views.These brothers were two of the eight children of William Henry Vanderbilt who, a decade earlier, had built his own magnificent mansion in New York City on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets.
Where did all the money come from to create this opulence? It was inherited from William’s father, Cornelius Vanderbilt I (1794-1877), a self made shipping and railroad tycoon who started from very humble beginnings. However, later in life, he was able to found Vanderbilt University with what was at the time America’s largest ever charitable donation. Cornelius I thought that William was a complete idiot and frequently expressed this view to William and to everyone else. William took all this abuse in his stride and did not argue with his father. This is probably why he inherited nearly all of his father’s $100 million dollar fortune, when his father died in 1877. This is equivalent to many billions in the dollars of today. Yet, by the time of William’s own death only nine years after that of his father, he had doubled his father’s fortune by expanding the Vanderbilt railroad interests. He was obviously anything but an idiot and was able to provide his own sons with the resources to create these wonderful homes.
US railroads today are operated by a loss-making government-owned corporation called Amtrak, which is subsidized by billions of taxpayer dollars. Railroads operated by the Vanderbilts in the 19th century required no subsidy. Instead they earned huge profits, as is demonstrated by these great houses. How sad that there are no 19th century Vanderbilts available to run Amtrak today.