NEWPORT, R.I. -- It was 1893, and Cornelius Vanderbilt II was head of America's wealthiest, most famous family, so no mere A-frame cabin would suffice when it came time for him to build a summer vacation home.
This was the Gilded Age, and the country's leading businessman -- the grandson of the original "Commodore" Vanderbilt -- needed a magnificent vacation home. It had to be the envy of rich neighbors and mere laborers alike.
So Cornelius Vanderbilt commissioned the Breakers.
Built in the pre-income-tax era, when the country's new wealthy class constructed monuments to their own success, the 70-room replica of a 16th century Italian palace is now a must-see for the 700,000-plus visitors who tour Newport's historic homes each year. The nine estates -- of varying degrees of ostentation -- would more than satisfy even today's Gettys, Trumps or Kennedys.
In fact, one of Newport's most beautiful estates -- Hammersmith Farm -- served as summer White House for President John F. Kennedy. The farm had belonged to the family of Jacqueline Kennedy's stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss, since 1887.
As elaborate and garish as these houses were, they still did not match the opulence of the owners' main homes, which is why they were referred to as "cottages" -- a term that today seems preposterously quaint.
Newport has been a favorite summer resort for America's rich since the Colonial era, when wealthy merchants from the South escaped the muggy heat at home by coming to this town, where Narragansett Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Touring the homes and gardens may give visitors the feeling that they're in Europe rather than one of America's oldest resort towns. Homes with these kinds of lavish -- and costly -- furnishings positively reek of the Old World.
That's because European nobility was the model for these 19th century American moguls. At the time these estates were built, the United States was just an emerging world power, and the wealthy still looked to Europe's aristocrats for inspiration and validation.
Clearly, what they liked was something that would make even the Old World nobility envious. And it was just their luck that, at that time, many of the old European fortunes were failing and royalties were being deposed. That left the way open for enterprising Americans to buy up old estates and artworks, dismantle them if necessary and ship them back to Newport where they were installed in the new cottages.
The hour-long guided tour of the Breakers introduces visitors to such breathtaking sights as the Great Hall, with its ornate carvings, tapestries and decorations; the spectacular, oval-shaped Music Room; and the two-story-high, 2,400-square-foot formal dining room with its marble columns, massive crystal chandeliers and a dining table that could seat 34.
If the Breakers typified the Gilded Age ideal, Hammersmith Farm is evocative of more recent, subdued tastes. One thing that didn't change was the clear evidence of impressive wealth.
The 28-room, shingle-covered house, built by John W. Auchincloss 104 years ago, feels more livable. Unlike the bigger cottages in the center of town, Hammersmith Farm is built to human proportions; it's possible to envision a family happily mingling in its recreation room, or playing a game of football on the huge lawn that slopes down gently to a dock on Narragansett Bay.
Although it was until recently in the Auchincloss family -- the family sold the house and most of the land to developers several years ago, keeping the large guest house for themselves -- the house is most closely associated with the U.S. president who spent so much time there. Its main lure is to those with unrevisionist memories of the glory days of Kennedy's Camelot.
The presidential flag, which flew near the shoreline whenever the president was staying there, hangs in the main entrance hallway. Upstairs, in Janet Auchincloss' dressing room, are old family photographs and mementos, including many of her daughter and son-in-law.
The Breakers: The summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II is at Ochre Point and Ruggles Avenue in Newport. The Breakers' hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Nov. 1; it is closed Nov. 2 through 28 and Dec. 24 and 25. Nov. 29 through Dec. 30 it is
open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.
Admission is $7.50 for adults, $3.50 for children 6 to 11.
Other homes run by the Preservation Society of Newport County have various hours and admission prices. For details, call (401) 847-1000.
Hammersmith Farm: The summer home of the Auchincloss family is located on Ocean Drive in Newport. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Nov. 17; hours vary through the end of the year. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children 3 to 12, free for children under 3. For information, call (401) 846-0420.