New Family Tour of The Breakers, Vanderbilt’s Newport ‘Cottage’

The Breakers, Newport

A new family audio tour of The Breakers emphasizes the people and how they lived within the "summer cottage," a symbol of wealth and a base of power in the Gilded Age © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

We have noticed an interesting change when visiting the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island: more use a self-guided audio tour rather than the timed tours presented by docents.

 The new audio tours are actually an improvement – you can pace yourself, spending as much or as little time as you like looking in this room or that, and you can punch in numbers to get much greater detail on various subjects that interest you.

 But most interestingly is that the audio tours incorporate many personal interviews with people who had a connection to the houses – they might have visited the house as a child, or had been a child of one of the staff; some are readers enacting the words of memoirs or letters of the historical figures, and historians offer illuminating commentary that puts the architecture, art, and social mores into context.

 The audio tours also incorporate wonderful sound effects – period music, the sounds of a busy kitchen- which help transport you back into that era, and add that extra sensual dimension.

 And if you have an additional question, you can still ask one of the museum people who will know the answer or know who to ask (whereas questions in a guided tour can be illuminating but also can drag down the commentary).

 Now, The Breakers, the fabulous (an understatement) historic Vanderbilt summer “cottage” built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, is introducing a family audio tour experience, created to enable youngsters and parents to imagine themselves personally witnessing the history made in this great Gilded Age chateau.

 As the house shares its secrets, you meet family members and staff, as well as fanciful creatures like the friendly dolphin hiding under the grand staircase, the lions of the Music Room and the dragons in the Dining Room. You experience a summer day in the life of one of the Vanderbilt children, you meet the masters of the kitchen – Monsieur Le Chef and his colleague, The Butler.

 You take an imaginary slide down the grand stairs on a silver serving tray, listen as imaginary acrobats pile 50 feet high to measure the Great Hall, and learn all the “rules” the children had to live by at The Breakers.

 The tour has been created by The Preservation Society of Newport County based on a decade of research, oral history from family members and staff who lived there as children, and the popular main audio tour “The Breakers Revealed” which premiered in 2009.  It uses extensively-documented historic facts to launch young people’s imagination on a flight of fancy through one of the 19th century’s grandest private residences, and introduces them to a time and place far removed from the present day.

 “Family experiences are among the most precious experiences children have in museums,” says Preservation Society CEO and Executive Director Trudy Coxe. “This tour begins to fulfill the promise of bringing our historic properties to life in ways that youngsters can share with their parents and each other.”  

 Using imagination, the tour introduces themes of architecture, design, décor and the importance of historic preservation from a uniquely personal point of view.

 “The strength of the tour is its solid artistic and historic foundation,” says Preservation Society Museum Affairs Director John Tschirch. “This tour is rich in imagination, but it’s not make-believe. The story of the building, the lives of the Vanderbilts and their staff provided all the material we needed to enable young people to connect with this important era in American history.”

 The tour is offered continuously at The Breakers as an option on the Explorer© audio tour players provided to all visitors at no additional charge. Presented in partnership with Antenna Audio, the world leader in museum audio tours, and Sonalysts Studios in Waterford, Connecticut, the 45-minute experience can be enjoyed by youngsters as their parents take “The Breakers Revealed” audio tour which follows the same route and timing. Visitors can stop as often as they like as they travel through the house, and can explore more information at subject stops along the route.     

 The Preservation Society of Newport County, Rhode Island is a non-profit organization accredited by the American Association of Museums and dedicated to preserving and interpreting the area’s historic architecture, landscapes and decorative arts.  Its 11 historic properties—seven of them National Historic Landmarks—span more than 250 years of American architectural and social development.

 For more information, call 401-847-1000 or visit http://www.NewportMansions.org.

And to feel like a Vanderbilt, stay in the newly opened Vanderbilt Hall, an actual mansion built in 1909 by Alfred Vanderbilt, the great-grandson of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, reinvented as a mansion hotel in 2010 by hotelier Peter De Savary (Vanderbilt Hall, 41 Mary Street, Newport, RI 02804, 401-846-6200, 888-826-4255. http://www.vanderbilthall.com).

And for more information on visiting Newport, Rhode Island, call 800-326-6030 or visit http://www.GoNewport.com.

 (For more stories about Newport, the Gilded Age mansions, and Vanderbilt Hall, visit www.travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate.)
–Karen Rubin

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