Skip to Content

Heating The Breakers


John D. Clarke knew how to heat a 70-room cottage in 1893. And he got it right the very first time. Then the Vanderbilts ordered all the mechanical drawings burned after construction so that no one would be able to copy the system. In this episode, Dan Holohan walks us through the history of the heating system at the Vanderbilts’ summer home, The Breakers.


Episode Transcript

Some years ago, and this was during the winter, I was wandering around Newport, Rhode Island with The Lovely Marianne and two of our daughters. We decided to take a tour of The Breakers, which Cornelius Vanderbilt II had ordered built as a summer cottage for the family back in 1893. It has 70 rooms.

We laid down our money, joined a tour, and spent a pleasant hour learning about life in the Gilded Age. The Lovely Marianne and the daughters ogled the artwork, the furniture, the wall coverings, and of course, the view.

I looked for the radiators.

You probably would have done the same.

I didn't spot any until near the end of the tour when we came upon this gorgeous old radiator just off the kitchen. I could tell by the piping that the Vanderbilts had enjoyed hot water heat during the few cold days that they spent at The Breakers. Nothing but the best for the Vanderbilts. When the tour was over and our docent was directing us into the gift shop I asked her if I might poke around in the basement. "Not possible," she said. "It's off limits. Sorry." So I hung my head and entered the gift shop, imagining what might be down there in the basement, and up in the attic, and behind all those gilded walls. You know how it is.

But then one spring I got an email from Holly Collins, an historian who was working with The Preservation Society of Newport County. Holly had found the website and she had been gobbling up the historical stuff we keep there. The Society had plans to offer a mechanical tour of The Breakers and Holly had tracked down most of what there was to know about the electrical system, the gaslights, the antique elevators. But she was having trouble defining how the heating system and the domestic-hot-water system worked. Would I be able to answer a few questions? Yep!

We corresponded for months and I was able to fill in most of the blanks for her since I was the current caretaker of so many of the books that the Dead Men wrote back in the day when these systems were brand new.

"Walworth and Nason? The first heating contractors? Might I have pictures of those gentlemen?"


"How did indirect hot water heating work? Do I have the specs for those systems?"

"Sure do!"

Holly needed those because the Vanderbilts had ordered all of the mechanical drawings for The Breakers burned after construction so that no one would ever be able to copy that system. Imagine that.

"Would you like me to visit?” I offered during one of our email exchanges. “I'm going to be in the area."

"We have no money to pay you," she said.

"That's okay," I said. “Really. It’s just fine.” 

It had taken three years, but I was finally going to get beyond the velvet rope.

Park your car and walk across the street to The Breakers. You'll come upon a set of magnificent gates, beside which sits the caretaker's cottage (which is larger than most houses). Coming out of the top of this cottage is a huge chimney. You might miss it if you're not paying attention. The main house sort of grabs you by the lapels and shakes you as you pass through those gates, but look to your left and up and you'll see the chimney. There once was a boiler room buried under the ground, right next to the cottage. And sticking out of the ground is an air-intake pipe, like something you'd see on the deck of the Titanic.

The boilers used to be 100 yards from the house. The original Breakers, a wood structure, had burned to the ground in 1892. The architect, Richard Morris Hunt, wanted to make sure coal embers didn't cause that to happen to the new place, so he had the boilers placed a football field away. Big pumps once moved the heated water through a tunnel to the house where it warmed free-standing radiators in the less-public areas, and indirect radiators in the main rooms.

It was the indirects that were most fascinating to me, as they always are. These units, which are more like boiler sections than radiators, reside within brick structures inside of which you could probably hold a small tea party. You access them through cast-iron doors, placed throughout the basement. I opened one and shined my flashlight into the gloom. The last person to look in there may have been the installing contractor. Coming up through the floor in these hydronic catacombs are a series of terracotta sleeves. That's how the outside air enters. Above the massive indirect heaters is the ductwork that carries the warmed outside air up into the rooms. There are no return-air ducts. The warmed air just goes from the rooms to the outdoors through loose window sashes.

Below the basement there is a sub-basement, and this is the plenum for the fresh air. It ends in a huge underground room below one of the terraces. This room serves no other purpose than to be a plenum entrance. I was starting to feel like Batman.

Speaking of which, I was up in the attic, which is about the size of a basketball court. Well, probably bigger. The producers of one of the early Batman films wanted to use this space for a few scenes. No dice.

Light booms down through an enormous skylight in that attic and fills the place with brilliance. This is so the huge stained-glass ceiling below the skylight can impress all who walk through the front door and into the main room. It's wonderful.

Up there in the attic are the two open, steel expansion tanks for the heating system, each rolled and riveted and about 12-feet tall and five feet wide. I spent some time thinking about the men who installed them up there. Near these are the holding tanks for the seawater (hot and cold saltwater baths were available at The Breakers). And for the rainwater. Nothing nicer than seawater and rainwater. And in addition to seawater and rainwater, there's also city water coming into this place. What’s your pleasure today, Sir? And you, madam? Take your pick.

So we have pipes for seawater, rainwater, city water, and heating water to figure out. The main heating pipes were flanged and about two feet in diameter. Pipes seem to be everywhere and there are no mechanical drawings to show you what's what. I found myself in a state of bliss. There I was, in the Land of the Deadman, and I was completely and blessedly free to roam. Which I did. It's good to be the heating guy.

We wandered for most of the day, and then we corresponded some more, and in the end, I think we had a fine story to tell anyone inclined to take what eventually became the Beneath the Breakers Tour. If you ever do, please think of Holly Collins, who had the inspiration.

And also think of John D. Clarke of New York City. He's the man who did the heating installation. His name is cast into much of the heating equipment. And isn't that a wonderful touch? Wouldn't it be nice if equipment manufacturers brought that tradition back? Every proud heating professional should be able to sign their work in steel and iron.

John D. Clarke of New York City knew how to heat a 70-room cottage in 1893. And he got it right the very first time. How I wish I could have met him.

I hope you enjoyed this story. And if you did, please share it with your friends. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you and I’m enjoying our time together. Thanks for listening.

Leave a comment

Related Posts

The Legacy of the Dead Men

In this episode, Dan Holohan reflects on the Dead Men who came before us and the legacy they left behind. Episode Transcript My earliest memory of school goes like this: ...

Published on 12/27/2022 4:45 AM
Pivotal Advice

In this episode, Dan Holohan shares the advice that changed his life. Episode Transcript Advice sometimes comes unsolicited (like now) and other times it comes after you’...

Published on 12/20/2022 4:45 AM
Pipe Stories

In this episode, Dan Holohan shares the tale of how nominal pipe sizes came to be, as well as some comical work stories. Episode Transcript I called the plumber because t...

Published on 12/13/2022 4:45 AM