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The Breakers, Historic Rhode Island Mansion Gives Servant View

The Breakers, Historic Rhode Island Mansion Gives Servant View

Sat, 11 Apr 2009 23:19:10

Associated Press Writer
Friday, April 10, 2009

NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) — Helen Bjurberg’s elderly voice greets visitors as she recalls her summers in the 1920s at The Breakers mansion, the opulent oceanside retreat for the wealthy Vanderbilt family. But as a servant’s child, she wasn’t coddled like guests.

Her quarters were hot and cramped. Springs punctured her bedding and poked her in the side. She could touch nothing, or else. She precociously stole glimpses of millionaires and glamorous lawn parties she and her mother, a cook at the house, would never attend.

The stories of the estate’s haves and the have-nots are being shared for the first time in a new audio tour intended to make Newport’s most glamorous and popular Gilded Age mansion more historically accurate and relevant.

"Museums in general have been trying very hard to connect themselves to people," said Trudy Coxe, CEO of the Preservation Society of Newport County, the nonprofit that operates The Breakers. "If you can’t be relevant, then I’m not sure what we’re in this business for."

The new working-man focus could resonate with visitors during a recession that makes the eye-popping Vanderbilt fortune seem all the more out of reach.

"It really connected you to the time and to the house to have someone who actually experienced it," said Bill Stuart, a Boston transit inspector who took the tour earlier this month.

He views the house as a relic of a bygone era. Today, he said, "No one could have this kind of resources and financial clout to build a place like this."

The Breakers, modeled after an Italian Renaissance palace, was completed in 1895 for the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The 70-room house draws more than 300,000 visitors a year, and the city’s mansions — built when Newport was a summer hangout for wealthy industrialists — collectively rank among New England’s most popular destinations.

The tour draws on new research and interviews recorded in the last decade with Vanderbilt family members who lived there and some of the 40 cooks, chauffeurs and coachmen who served them. Visitor surveys showed a desire for more information about the mansion’s residents.

The new tour still notes The Breakers’ decadent, even garish, flourishes: the towering red-carpeted staircase in the Great Hall, the sparkling twin chandeliers and crystal wall sconces in the dining room and the open-air oceanfront terrace.

But it also opens previously closed sections of the house, exposing a warren of cramped corridors and storage space used by the servants to contrast the grand features.

Visitors are directed to a stained-glass skylight and 17th-century tapestry depicting the life of Alexander the Great, then turn to face a drab wooden staircase for staff.

"You’re going to constantly see a contrast between grand space and then functional serving space, and we purposefully walk people through the spaces that way," said John Tschirch, an architectural historian and director of academic programs for the Preservation Society who designed the new tour.

To create the tour, researchers funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant sifted through archives, photographs and documents. They also tracked down senior citizens who as children or young adults lived or labored in the house.

Snippets of their interviews are played throughout the tour. The recollections are often bittersweet.

Mary Seliga, the daughter of a staff worker, fondly recalls dreaming of being a "fairy princess" after peeking at "handsome young men" and stylish women in elegant ballroom gowns.

Rudolph Stanish, a domestic servant who became a professional chef known for his omelets, admits he used to contemplate dumping his 15-pound food trays on the laps of the women he served as they kept him waiting while they finished their conversations. But he also credits the house as a "stepping stone" to professional success for him and other servants.

Mansion officials hope the new tour will foster discussion among visitors.

"The Breakers does trigger a lot of interesting conversations about what it means to be American, what it means to be wealthy, what it means to have a home," Tschirch said.

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