NEWPORT, Rhode Island (AP) -- The Vanderbilt family, once synonymous with American wealth and power, has fallen into a full-blown public spat with a historic preservation organization that now owns one of their spectacular mansions.
The conflict revolves around the Breakers, a landmark 70-room estate in the state of Rhode Island on the Atlantic ocean, which the Vanderbilts, a family of wealthy industrialists, built in the late 19th century.
In the late 1940s, Countess Szechenyi, the daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, a leading railroad magnate who constructed the mansion, leased the downstairs part of the residence for $1 per year to the Preservation Society of Newport County, then a fledgling local group that was trying to save the city's famous but vacant Gilded Age mansions from the wrecking ball. The Countess and her family moved into rooms on the third floor.
In 1972, Szechenyi's heirs sold the house to the Preservation Society for $366,000. But her daughter, Countess Szapary, was invited to stay. After Szapary's death, her children, Gladys, now 62, and Paul Szapary, now 65, were invited to remain on the third floor, rent free.
Gladys Szapary now says that the Preservation Society is out to evict the family from the mansion, where she has summered her entire life. "I'm waiting for them to throw my clothes out the window," she said.
But there is also another issue at stake - the Vanderbilts believe the home is not being run properly.
They are objecting to a proposal put forth by the Preservation Society to build a visitor center on the grounds. The society said the center would be tucked in a little-used portion of the 13-acre estate and would provide a sheltered and handicapped-accessible place to buy tickets, use the bathroom, and purchase snacks and sandwiches.
But many neighbors and preservationists objected, saying it would detract from The Breakers' status as a National Historic Landmark. They argue the proposal is an example of the society sacrificing its mission to preserve history as it hunts for new ways to make money.
Last month, 21 members of the Vanderbilt family wrote to the group's board to express their concern about the proposal and said they won't donate money or family objects to the nonprofit under "the current leadership climate."
The group fired back saying the signers had contributed only $4,000 in recent years, and that most of the family members' items displayed at The Breakers were not very important. The group made a veiled threat against the Szaparys, saying their occupancy "can be ended at any time."
The Szaparys live in New York when they're not staying at The Breakers, and both say their fight is not about retaining their residency on the third floor. What they care about most is keeping history alive, and preserving their family's legacy.
"The Breakers was a house. It's not just a mansion, a museum," Paul Szapary said. "We think that people who visit there are interested in that aspect."