In the digital age, pioneers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college to build business empires that would ultimately land them on Forbes’ list of the wealthiest people in America. But in the early 1800s, a determined Cornelius Vanderbilt dropped out of school at age 11, starting a ferry service at the ripe old age of 16. By harnessing the power of steamboats and railroads, he created a transportation empire that would earn him the nickname “the Commodore” and make him the richest man in America by the end of his life.
Although Americans are now more likely to travel by car or plane than boat or train, you can relive the glory of the Gilded Age by admiring the opulent homes the Vanderbilt family built up and down the Atlantic Coast. Many of the glamorous Fifth Avenue townhouses and mansions built by three generations of Vanderbilts in the 1800s and 1900s have been demolished. But the following Vanderbilt mansions — all constructed around the turn of the 20th century by the Commodore’s grandchildren — are open to visitors.
1. The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island
As the oldest son of his oldest son, Cornelius Vanderbilt II was a big deal to the Commodore; he was rumored to be his favorite grandson. It is believed that the elder Cornelius was less impressed with the young man’s given name and more by the strong work ethic he displayed at an early age. While the Commodore was a self-made man, Cornelius II inherited $5 million from his grandfather, $70 million from his father, and ultimately took the helm of the family’s transportation empire.
Fun Fact: You can learn more about the Vanderbilt legacy, from the Commodore to Gloria Vanderbilt to Anderson Cooper, in Cooper’s Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty.
On 13 acres atop a bluff where the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crash onto the rocky shore below, Cornelius commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design an elaborate five-story, 70-room, Italian-inspired villa that his family could use as a summer home. Completed in 1895, The Breakers is now a National Historic Landmark and remains one of the grandest and best-known mansions in Newport. (And yes, some scenes from HBO’s new original series The Gilded Age were filmed in The Breakers.)
At roughly 62,500 square feet, The Breakers has a footprint of roughly an acre that includes a great hall, morning room, library, music room, and billiards room. Self-guided tours of The Breakers are available on the free Newport Mansions app. Set yourself up for the best experience by downloading the app from the Apple App Store or Google Play before you visit. And don’t forget to double-check that you’ve packed your earbuds! After you’ve walked across the perfectly polished parquet floors, gazed up at elaborate chandeliers hanging from soaring ceilings, and otherwise soaked in the impressive surroundings, stroll down to the stable and carriage house and explore the grounds.
Pro Tip: Check out these other majestic mansions in Newport; and to get even more specific, these Newport mansions are enchanting during Christmastime.
2. Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island
Separated by a sister and a brother who died in infancy, William Kissam Vanderbilt was six years younger than Cornelius II. His Newport “cottage,” designed by the same architect who designed The Breakers, is known as Marble House. Why? Because this swanky beaux-arts mansion inspired by Marie-Antoinette’s estate at Versailles features 500,000 cubic feet of American, Italian, and African marble.
It’s easy to be impressed by Marble House’s gilded details, grand staircase (made of marble, of course), elaborately painted Venetian ceilings, and cathedral-length stained glass windows. After all, Marble House was used to film scenes for the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan. But it also helped shape social change for women.
Although women didn’t have the right to vote in America in the 1890s, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 paved the way for William to gift Marble House to his wife on her 39th birthday. Alva Vanderbilt would go on to use her beautiful home — and its spectacular Chinese Tea House, which was modeled after a 12th-century temple — to host women’s suffrage rallies.
As with The Breakers, you’ll want to allow about 90 minutes to tour both the mansion and the grounds of this estate. The Breakers and Marble House are partially wheelchair accessible. For detailed information about accessibility, contact the Newport Mansions preservation society.
Pro Tip: William also built Eagle’s Nest as a summer estate in Centerport, New York. Tour the historic mansion, explore the heavens at the planetarium and observatory, and wander through the Hall of Fishes when you visit this Vanderbilt mansion on the northern shore of Long Island.
3. Rough Point, Newport, Rhode Island
After leveling two long-standing wooden homes on a double parcel of land down the coast from The Breakers and Marble House, Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt worked with the Boston-based architectural firm Peabody & Stearns to design an English-inspired summer “cottage.” Although the home was built by the Vanderbilts, Rough Point is more closely associated with its last resident, Doris Duke.
A close friend of Jackie Kennedy, Doris was a philanthropic heiress whose family purchased Rough Point in 1922, enlarging and renovating the property to its current state. Often referred to as “the richest girl in the world” due to the large bequests she received from her father’s will, she is sometimes confused with Gloria Vanderbilt, who was nicknamed “the poor little rich girl” during a nasty custody battle between her widowed mother and her aunt.
When you visit Rough Point, you’ll see the 2,000-square-foot music room where Doris was presented to Newport society as a debutante, the wood-paneled Pine Room with Doris’s baby grand piano, Doris’s sunny bedroom with purple curtains, and an airy solarium with spectacular views of the coast. Equally as impressive is the art that fills the home. Watch for British portraits, French furniture, Chinese ceramics, and Flemish tapestries as you wind your way through the house.
Pro Tip: Here’s how to spend the perfect weekend in Newport.
4. Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, New York
In addition to Rough Point, the Commodore’s grandson Frederick owned a mansion in Upstate New York. Built on 200 scenic acres overlooking the Hudson River for Frederick and his wife, the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park is just a short distance from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s boyhood home and final resting place.
A stone beaux-arts country house that clocks in at 44,000 square feet, the Vanderbilt Mansion boasts 54 rooms filled with rich wood paneling and European marble finishings. Admire the carved wood ceiling in the large living room, the finely furnished bedrooms, and the breathtaking views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. Then be sure to explore the gorgeous grounds.
When the home was completed in the early 1900s, the Vanderbilts added greenhouses and established a farm to be sure they were fully stocked with farm-to-table ingredients and fresh-cut flowers when they were in residence. Maintained by the National Park Service since 1940, the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site offers fantastic views of the Hudson River and a scenic picnic spot.
Pro Tip: Discover more beautiful historic mansions in the Hudson Valley.
5. Biltmore, Asheville, North Carolina
Built by the youngest of Cornelius II’s siblings, George Washington Vanderbilt, Biltmore is the closest thing Americans have to a castle. Completed in 1895, this sprawling French chateau-like mansion remains the largest house in the United States. Its 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, three kitchens, 65 fireplaces, and many other rooms fill 175,000 square feet of living space, the equivalent of 4 acres! In addition to luxuriously appointed common areas, a grand staircase, an impressive library, and an inviting winter garden, Biltmore includes a cavernous indoor swimming pool and the nation’s first private indoor bowling alley.
The mansion is set on 8,000 acres of green space that include rolling hills, manicured gardens, and natural wooded areas shaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind Central Park and the U.S. Capitol grounds.
Pro Tip: Here are seven things to do after touring Biltmore on a weekend getaway in Asheville.
6. Elm Court, Lenox, Massachusetts
Although it’s in the midst of a transformation from historic treasure to hotel and spa, Elm Court Estate is a Vanderbilt mansion worth mentioning. Not only was this home built by one of the Commodore’s granddaughters, but events held at Elm Court helped shape the course of history.
With its wood shingles, asymmetrical facades, and gambrel roofs, the 106-room, 55,000-square-foot home built by Emily Thorn Vanderbilt and her husband, William Douglas Sloane, in the 1880s remains the largest American shingle-style home in the U.S. In its heyday, Elm Court attracted U.S. Presidents and European royalty, and in 1919, the Elm Court Talks held at the estate helped create the League of Nations and draft the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.
From a perch above the Hudson River in Upstate New York to the forested hills of North Carolina, you’ll find impressive Vanderbilt estates all along the East Coast.