Behind the Scenes of Newport's Historic Mansions

October 30, 2017

The Preservation Society of Newport, RI offers tours of the area’s historic mansions. For this year’s office outing, the Catalano team visited The Breakers and The Elms for the brand new Beneath the Breakers tour and the Servant Life Tour.

Both tours offer visitors a unique opportunity to see the mansions and their estates as the servants and workers who helped operate the properties would have seen them.


Beneath the Breakers 

The Breakers is an impressive 70-room mansion, designed by Richard Morris Hunt and completed in 1895. Originally, it was home to Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice Vanderbilt. Beneath the Breakers is a new tour focused on the electrical systems and heating mechanisms used to keep the property running.

The tour starts in the boiler room which is separate from the house a distance across the yard. The former Vanderbilt home had burned to the ground in a fire, so the family took this extra precaution against fires when building the Breakers. From the boiler room, we walked through underground tunnels that led all the way beneath the Breakers. Along the way, our tour guide explained various features of the house including the indirect water system heated by coal, the electrical panel mounted on marble with copper wires, and a large collection of vintage champagne.


Servant Life Tour at The Elms

The Elms mansion, completed in 1901, was designed by Horace Trumbauer and owned by Edward Julius Berwind and his wife Sarah Berwind.

Our Servant Life tour guide led us through the areas of the house in which the servants worked and lived, described daily chores and tasks, and outlined interesting family and servant records including an old sensationalized news story about a servant strike that took place shortly after the house was built.

Though housed on the top floor of the mansion, the servants’ quarters are hidden from street view by the building’s parapet wall. A skylight on this top floor brings natural light to the servant’s corridor, which leads to a small roof area with amazing 180-degree views of the harbor.


Catalano Architect’s work includes cleanly and efficiently integrating mechanical, electrical, and service spaces into the design of a house – without pulling focus from the main spaces. This demands that we have an understand of the entire house and how it functions. The Breakers and The Elms had very advanced technology for their time, and it was fascinating to step back in time to see the spaces from a different perspective than home tours typically offer. Our team was excited at this chance to glimpse past the living room curtains into the functional spaces of these famous historic homes.



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