Monday, February 23, 2009

With All That Money

This weekend my daughters and I went to see some turn-of-the-century summer cottages of some industrialist millionaires. The three homes we toured, The Breakers, The Elms, and The Marble House, were all incredibly impressive in their size and opulence, but we all agreed we'd do some things a little differently (like not emulate any of the King Louis' styles) and some things the same (open courtyards, loggias, huge bedrooms for the ladies, annunciator boxes to call the servants, gorgeous gardens, and lawn all the way to the ocean) if we owned these cottages.

Some cottage industry notes: The Breakers, the summer cottage of Cornelius Vanderbilt II who ran the New York Central Railroad, and whose grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt made his money by developing that railroad, occupies an acre in footprint, some of the wall panels are painted on platinum;

The Elms, built by Edward Berwind who made his money in the Pennsylvannia coal industry, unlike the other two mansions mentioned here, was set up with electric lights only - there are no gas/electricity transitional fixtures in the house;

The Marble House, so-called because of its 500,000 c.f. of marble was built by another grandson, William Vanderbilt, and was based on Petit Trianon at Versailles and where the hostess, Alva Vanderbilt, often had fund raising parties for the suffragette movement of which she was a tremendous supporter.

Our favorite home was The Breakers, but our favorite grounds were at The Elms. My favorite room was the one at the Marble House redone in the Federal period (completely gauche, I know, as it was remodelled by the second owner in his preferred style) which is largely devoid of ornamentation.

Overall, the remaining sentiment shared by all was "ew" at the ubiquitous goose poop on the lawns. You'd think that with the recent assessment of $350 million, The Breakers could afford some goose-poop control, but no. Maybe they could take a tip from Simmons College and hire a Border Collie. Those fake black dogs aren't fooling anybody.

The trip helped me to think about what it means to be wealthy and spurred a conversation about how the times and societies we live in can contribute to shaping our values - aesthetic and otherwise.

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