Cornelius Vanderbilt II

Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843-1899) was the oldest son of William Henry Vanderbilt and the grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, patriarch of the Vanderbilt dynasty. Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his younger brothers, William K. Vanderbilt and Frederick W. Vanderbilt, succeeded their father in managing the family's vast shipping and railroad empire.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II was president and chairman of the New York Central Railroad and director of 49 other railroads. In addition, he served on the boards of the New York YMCA, the General Theological Seminary, and St. Luke's Hospital. He was known as a serious, pious man who gave liberally to charities.

Like many of his Gilded Age counterparts, Cornelius Vanderbilt II used the wealth amassed from the family business to build mansions that placed his family at the center of American society. Most notable was his summer home, The Breakers, in Newport, Rhode Island.

In 1885, Cornelius Vanderbilt II purchased a 13-acre plot of land on Ochre Point. The property included a wooden home, which was destroyed by fire in 1892. In 1893, Vanderbilt hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a five-story, 70-room mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Hunt designed The Breakers in the Italian Renaissance style. The fireproof building was built on steel trusses and surrounded by Indiana limestone. The symmetrical rooms were designed around a Great Hall. Marble was imported from Italy and Africa to decorate the interior.

The interior of The Breakers reflects both an opulent Italianate style and the simpler classical style espoused by artists of the American Renaissance. Hunt hired J. Allard and Sons of Paris to design furniture and fixtures for The Breakers. Author Edith Wharton introduced Vanderbilt to architect and decorator Ogden Codman Jr. Vanderbilt hired Codman to design the second and third floor rooms of The Breakers. Codman chose an eighteenth century French and Italian classical style that he later espoused in his book, The Decoration of Houses, co-authored with Edith Wharton.

The grounds were designed by Boston landscape architect Ernest Bowditch, a student of Frederick Law Olmsted. Bowditch designed rows of trees to separate The Breakers from its Newport neighbors. In addition, a 30-foot-high limestone and iron fence bordered the property.

The Breakers established a new standard of building at American resorts. It provided the architectural backdrop for lavish social gatherings that affirmed the wealth and status of the family. It also made use of the latest innovations in technology—an elevator and electric lighting.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife, Alice Claypoole Gwynne, had six children. Their son, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, went down with the Lusitania in 1915. Their daughter, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, was a sculptor and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. They left The Breakers to their daughter, Gladys Vanderbilt, who worked with the Preservation Society of Newport County to open it as a museum.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, ©2001-2003