A small group of tourists, most bundled up against the rain and wind that awaits outside, are standing still and staring at the ceiling above them—I’m one of them. With our necks craned it would seem that we have all forgotten every childhood lesson about good manners. Our mouths have fallen open, just begging for someone to come in and lecture us about the risk of catching flies, and giving us the appearance of some state of shock. But, to be quite honest, shock might describe how I felt quite accurately.
The ceiling in question that has so completely captured my attention is that of the foyer in The Breakers in Newport, R.I. Except I’m not really sure that “ceiling” and “foyer” are really the right words in this situation. Perhaps “ornate work of art” and “palatial receiving room” would serve as more accurate choices.
Built in 1895 by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the railroad mogul whose family essentially served as American royalty until families like the Kardashians captured the national attention, The Breakers served as the family’s summer estate. It was designed by Richard Hunt in the style of the Italian Renaissance (but with handy features like electricity and running water included), and contained 70 palatial rooms, even though The Breakers was only inhabited for a few months out of the year at most.
The Breakers is not the only mansion in the area, it is just one of an entire fleet of gigantic homes dubbed the “Newport Mansions” that are open to public today. You can essentially go mansion hopping, ogling at one magnificent home after another, and staring in disbelief at neighboring estates that are still privately owned.
Once you see those, and maybe a Bentley pulling through the towering electric gates as one of the owners pulling through, you might consider throwing yourself in front of the car and trying to marry into this family or something, before quickly rejecting the idea. You might not have a gigantic mansion to call your own, but at least you have a sense of pride. Sort of.
But back to the ceiling. If you were visiting The Breakers as a valued guest of the family, this impressive feat of molding and gold leaf would be one of the first things that you would see. I can only imagine that it would’ve made for quite the first impression—as I stood there with my head tipped back, listening to the calm voice of my audio tour explain some of the home’s background while my mouth hung open, impressed is another word that could’ve described how I was feeling.
The ceiling, which towered far above my head, was created in imitation of an outdoor piazza. A large rectangular painting of a robin’s egg sky filled with fluffy white and gold clouds made up the center of the ceiling, and it was surrounded by a detailed molded border. Covered in a glimmering gold leaf, this first border was followed by yet another border which contained painted reliefs of angels, acorns, and flowers—and, of course, more gold leaf. A few more stripes of golden artisanal molding, and the ceiling came to an end, allowing viewers’ eyes to travel down one of the glowing golden chandeliers that hung from each of the four corners. The whole room was bathed in a rich wash of soft light, and I started wondering about how it would feel to return to this place after a long day of managing my active life as a Newport socialite and call it home.
After wrestling the imposing front doors, would I waltz into this imposing room and shout to my family “Guys, I’m home!”?
I could just hear my voice echoing through the space with no reply. Even back home—where the number of rooms to contend with is significantly less than 70—voices can echo, and questions shouted to the rest of the family can go unanswered. As all of our parents could tell us, these moments, where you are ignored or unheard, leave you feeling ticked off and slightly empty.
So, as I wandered through The Breakers’ many rooms, each more opulent than the next, I kept turning this problem around in my head. I could only imagine being lonely but still surround by all these pretty things—it seemed miserable. The beauty would lose its charm with each quiet return home, becoming more tainted each day. Eventually, even if living in such a huge space didn’t end up being oppressively lonely, wouldn’t I eventually become desensitized to the marvels that surrounded me? That would be a fate just as terrible as loneliness.
To appreciate a beautiful object, you must give your eyes a rest every once in a while. That is the phenomenon of beautiful things. In the object’s absence, you will be able to understand what it adds to the world in full, and cherish it all the more once you find it again. Perhaps that is why the families who lived in these estates limited their time there, and why I was so relieved to finally leave The Breakers once the tour was over.
That same phenomenon is why, once out of the gilded home, the craggy tree branches silhouetted against yet another gloomy New England had a beauty that I hadn’t noticed before.
Featured Image by Madeleine D’Angelo / Heights Editor