Museum conservators at The Preservation Society of Newport County, in Newport, RI, have made a remarkable discovery that sheds new light on the Gilded Age of American architecture, and on one of history’s most prominent families.
The Preservation Society of Newport County announced that the famous Breakers mansion, the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence in turn-of-the-century America, has wall surfaces and ceiling panels covered with platinum leaf.
Platinum is an extremely rare, silver-colored precious metal, known for its durability and resistance to tarnishing, but its prominent decorative use has rarely been documented in 19th century American architectural design.
Solving a 100-Year-Old MysteryUsing non-invasive, state-of-the-art conservation techniques, Preservation Society museum conservators worked with experts from the Winterthur Museum analytical laboratory in Delaware to solve the longstanding mystery of the eight gleaming wall panels accenting all four corners of The Breakers’ elegant Morning Room: if the panels were decorated with silver leaf then why hadn’t they tarnished in over 100 years?
“The answer, we know now, is that the panels weren’t silver-leafed at all; they were platinum, as were some of the ornate decorative panels on the ceiling,” explained Jeff Moore, chief conservator for The Preservation Society, noting that the eight distinctive wall panels in the corners of the room are each painted to depict one of the Muses of Classical mythology.
Explaining the difficulty of working with even the more common and malleable precious metals of the day, Moore noted that gold leaf is just 1/250,000 of an inch thick: “It will literally float around in the air if you’re not careful.”
“Because silver tarnishes so easily, we had suspected for decades that these Breakers’ wall coverings were crafted from a different material, probably tin or aluminum,” he said. “Platinum had never even occurred to us. I was speechless when we made the discovery.”
That discovery takes on added significance when coupled with the legendary Vanderbilt family and the history of the mansion itself, which was built by iconic American architect Richard Morris Hunt starting in 1893.
Striking "Architectural Gold"“If America’s Gilded Age were to be represented by a single house, that house would be The Breakers, so for an important museum like ours, the discovery of platinum is the equivalent of striking architectural gold,” said Trudy Coxe, CEO and executive director of The Preservation Society.
“Platinum was known to be difficult to work and decadently expensive, even back then. The fact that it was so beautifully incorporated in The Breakers underscores the wealth and power of the Vanderbilts, for whom money literally was no object,” said Coxe. “It also tells us that the world’s best architectural design firms were even more skilled and advanced than we had realized, or even suspected.”
The Breakers, which is designated a National Historic Landmark, was completed in 1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, president and chairman of the New York Central Railroad. His grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, established the Vanderbilt family fortune in steamships, and later created the New York Central railroad, a pivotal development in the industrial growth of America during the late 19th century.
The Breakers HistoryIn 1885, Cornelius Vanderbilt II purchased a wooden house in Newport, RI, called The Breakers, as a summer home for his family. That home, however, was destroyed by fire in 1892. In 1893, he commissioned the dean of American architects, Richard Morris Hunt, to design a villa to replace the earlier wood-framed house. Hunt directed an international team of craftsmen and artisans to create a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo inspired by the 16th-century palaces of Genoa. French designer Jules Allard assisted Hunt with furnishings and fixtures; Austro-American sculptor Karl Bitter designed relief sculpture; and Boston architect Ogden Codman decorated the family quarters.
The Vanderbilts are known to have spared no expense in the construction or decoration of The Breakers. And it shows. The interiors of the four-story limestone mansion include rich marbles and glittering gilded rooms, a 50-foot high Great Hall, mosaic tile floors and ceilings, vast expanses of glass, and open-air terraces with magnificent views of the ocean and of the crashing ocean waves that gave the house its name.
The Breakers’ interior spaces total 138,300 square feet. It was built in just two years, an extraordinary feat in the 19th century. As a time-saving technique that also added considerable allure to the home, the Morning Room was one of two rooms created entirely in France, by Allard and Sons, then disassembled, shipped to the United States and re-assembled on-site in Newport. While gold and silver leaf are used extensively throughout the mansion, there was no record of platinum having been used anywhere in the house until this recent discovery.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, had seven children. Their youngest daughter, Gladys, who married Count László Széchényi of Hungary, inherited The Breakers on her mother’s death in 1934. An ardent supporter of The Preservation Society, the Countess opened The Breakers in 1948 to raise funds for the Society. In 1972, the Preservation Society purchased The Breakers from her heirs. Today, the house is designated a National Historic Landmark.
The Preservation Society of Newport CountyThe Preservation Society was founded in 1945 as a private, non-profit educational organization. Accredited by the American Association of Museums, the Society is Rhode Island’s largest cultural organization. It is dedicated to preserving, and interpreting the region’s historic architecture, culture, landscapes and decorative arts.
The Society’s 11 historic museum properties - seven of them National Historic Landmarks - span more than 250 years of American architectural and social development.
For more information about the Preservation Society of Newport County, and the Newport Mansions, go to www.NewportMansions.org, or call 401/847.1000.