As was the trend among the upper crust of the late-19th century, this opulent Vanderbilt mansion is adorned with European and Greco-Roman antiquities and nouveau-classical art. In one of the many wall reliefs depicting cherubs and Greek gods, however, is a hidden steam train carved into the background, causing sharp-eyed visitors to do a double take.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the Gilded Age millionaire responsible for the construction of the famous Newport mansion knows as the Breakers, was part of the prominent Vanderbilt family known for their extravagant palatial residences, built from the wealth gained from the burgeoning railroad industry.
Completed in 1893, the Breakers is a massive, opulent, 70-room summer “cottage” with gold leaf covering most of the walls and ceilings on the first floor. However, late Victorian families often showed off their fashionable wealth with impressive antiques. It was popular for the wealthy elite to have collections of European and Greco-Roman antiquities, but even more so to create nouveau-classical art.
This can be seen in the Breakers and other Newport houses in paintings, busts, statues of family members wearing togas, or new paintings or marble statues created of Greek gods and goddesses. In the Breakers there are ceiling paintings, busts, full statues, carved stone pillars, and, leading out of the main hall, reliefs of cherubs over the doorways doing lots of cherub-like things like holding garlands of fruit and flowers or fluttering around.
However, Cornelius Vanderbilt II wanted to go one step further, as can be seen if you look really hard at the relief above the doorway to the music room after entering from the back side of the main hall. With a close enough look, you will see the nouveau-classical cherubs over this particular doorway have a little something extra. Behind the cherub to the left of the bust of Mercury you can distinctly see a steam train chugging along.
Remember, the Vanderbilt fortune was built on railway wealth. First, Mercury was chosen for being the god of commerce, travel, financial gain, and known for speed. Then Cornelius Vanderbilt II apparently couldn’t resist putting in the little Easter egg of an actual train in the Greek-style artwork. It is very subtle and easy to miss; with all the gold leaf distracting you, it is quite easy to just walk by without noticing.