As some of you may be aware there is a controversy in Newport over the visitor’s center planned for on the grounds of the Breakers, one of the houses of the Preservation Society of Newport County. The proposed visitor’s center will be placed inside the fenced property on a site that had been an important garden. Like many Newporters, I believe there is a better solution.
My wife and I visit many museums and gardens all over the world. I always look not just at the collections, but how the public is received and treated. The quality of the food and service. How friendly and helpful the guides are.
I believe the Preservation Society of Newport County is violating their own mission statement which is to preserve these houses in their entirety.
Today we visited, for the second time “Filoli” south of San Francisco. The visitor’s center is just off the parking, obscured from all angles from the main house and gardens. Food is served; it is good and fresh. As you see there is no food allowed on the grounds.
The visitor sees the house and gardens as it was meant to be seen.
The SuperBowl is over and those who attended in person are now stuck in airports because of the weather. Here in Newport is snowed all day, with the promise of more brought by a larger system starting early Wednesday morning and then another storm on Sunday. All of these will be sandwiched by cold weather.
I was astonished by the number of cars skidding off the road while we were driving around taking these photographs.
You are here
FILE – In this Nov. 12, 2001 file photo, visitors take advantage of free admission to tour The Breakers mansion in Newport, R.I. The Preservation Society of Newport County proposed building a visitor center in 2014 that would sit on the mansion’s grounds. The society said it would be unobtrusive and would provide necessary services that currently are lacking at the popular tourist attraction. Some nearby residents are fighting the plan. (AP Photo/Stew Milne, File)
This conceptual image provided Jan. 15, 2014, by The Preservation Society of Newport County shows a proposed visitor center that would sit on the grounds of Newport, R.I.’s most famous mansion, The Breakers, built by the Vanderbilt family. Some nearby residents are fighting the plan. The society said the visitor center would be unobtrusive and would provide necessary services that currently are lacking at the popular tourist attraction. (AP Photo/The Preservation Society of Newport County)
NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) — A proposal to build a visitors center on the grounds of The Breakers, the Gilded Age Vanderbilt family mansion and national historic landmark, is dividing Newport’s preservationists, neighbors, and even some family members in a seaside city where tourism is its lifeblood.
The Preservation Society of Newport County, the nonprofit group that owns the 70-room mansion, says the center is badly needed to serve The Breakers’ 400,000 annual visitors. Many opponents agree something is needed, but they want it across the street in the parking lot or elsewhere, not on the 13-acre grounds of the property, which they say would be irreparably damaged.
During the months since the $4.2 million plan was released, then rejected by the city’s Historic District Commission, the disagreement has devolved into a bitter fight, with opponents who once considered themselves allies of the Preservation Society now accusing it of steamrolling or cutting people out when they disagree. The Preservation Society says it has explored the alternatives, and its plan is the only feasible one to protect the magnificent home built by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II.
“We have hired the best people, the brightest people. They’re very sensitive to the issues. There is no steamroller. We believe we’re doing the right thing,” said Don Ross, chairman of the group’s board.
Both sides say they’re fighting for the future. Opponents set up a “Save the Breakers” Facebook page in August. The Preservation Society set up a competing page the next day, also called “Save the Breakers.”
On Friday, the National Park Service weighed in, siding with critics and asking the Preservation Society to reconsider a plan it said could damage the national historic landmark.
The Preservation Society will go before the city’s zoning board on Monday to appeal, and says if it’s again turned down, it will go to court. In the meantime, the plan has drawn some high-profile detractors, including designer Gloria Vanderbilt, who in a letter to the editor of Newport This Week last summer decried the possibility that visitors to the “magical kingdom” her grandfather built would be greeted by “plastic, shrink-wrapped sandwiches.”
The Preservation Society acknowledges some Vanderbilts are angry, but says others privately support the idea once they hear more about it.
The Breakers, named for the breaking Atlantic waves it overlooks, is one of the most popular historic house museums in the United States. The estate opened in in 1895, during a time when Newport functioned as the nation’s summer social capital, and became the crown jewel in a city populated by mansions.
By the middle of the 20th century, though, many of the once-splendid homes had fallen into disrepair. Some were razed. The Preservation Society was formed to save some of those buildings. It purchased The Breakers from Vanderbilt’s descendants in the 1970s and today owns 11 properties that collectively receive more than 900,000 visitors annually.
Those who visit The Breakers today must either pay admission at a small ticket booth or at a tent erected on the grounds during warmer months. Restrooms are in the basement or in portable toilets outside. Snacks are available from vending machines situated in an outdoor shed.
The Preservation Society’s plan calls for a 3,700-square-foot building reminiscent of a conservatory to be built inside a grove of trees, where it says it would not be visible from the house or street. It would include ticketing for The Breakers and other of its houses, as well accessible restrooms. It would offer a place to get out of the weather as well as a place to buy sandwiches and sit.
Opponents ask why it can’t simply be built across the street, where it would be close by while not disrupting the original plan of the estate’s designers, including architect Richard Morris Hunt, forester James Bowditch and his brother, landscape engineer Ernest Bowditch, who was a student of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted.
The Preservation Society says the building would take up too many parking spaces, forcing more traffic into the neighborhood, which includes several other large residences, Salve Regina University, and an entrance to the Cliff Walk, itself an attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. It also says building it in the lot would be too far from the house and could be seen from the street.
“That’s nonsense,” said Don Christ, chairman of the board of the Alletta Morris McBean Charitable Trust, which has given more than $10 million to the Preservation Society over the years and is among its largest donors. He calls the current plan inappropriate and says he doesn’t understand why a group that stands for preservation is pushing it.
He also objects that the group plans to spend so much on the project when there are other preservation projects at The Breakers that could use the money.
“If you go through The Breakers, it’s in woeful shape,” he said. “They overuse it because it’s the heart that pumps money through the Preservation Society.”
Among the plan’s supporters, however, are the state’s top economic development official, the local chamber of commerce and tourism officials. Rhode Island had an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent in December, but tourism is one of the state’s few economic bright spots.
Ronald Onorato, a Newport resident and University of Rhode Island professor who has published several books on Newport architecture, sits on a state preservation board that was asked to weigh in on part of the project. He voted yes. He says there is a tug-of-war in the neighborhood as more tourists have poured in. The Breakers is now a museum and must be run that way, rather than as a private house, he said.
But in its letter to the Preservation Society on Friday, the National Park Service pointed out that several historic homes have visitors centers set back from the main attraction, including Monticello. The group’s plan, the park service wrote, “constitutes a significant and intrusive change.”
Monday evening, January 27th, the Zoning Board of Review of Newport Rhode Island will review the New Historic District Commission’s decision which would not allow the visitor’s center to be built on the property of the Breakers. The Zoning Board will review the decision as to whether or not the law was applied as written.
This has been a continuing heated issue in Newport. I cannot see how building this Visitor’s Center on the Breakers property is consistent with the Mission of the Preservation Society.
The Preservation Society of Newport County‘s mission statement is as follows:
The Preservation Society of Newport County is a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect, preserve, and present an exceptional collection of house museums and landscapes in one of the most historically intact cities in America.
We hold in public trust the Newport Mansions which are an integral part of the living fabric of Newport, Rhode Island. These sites exemplify three centuries of the finest achievements in American architecture, decorative arts, and landscape design spanning the Colonial era to the Gilded Age.
Through our historic properties, educational programs, and related activities we engage the public in the story of America’s vibrant cultural heritage.
We seek to inspire and promote an appreciation of the value of preservation to enrich the lives of people everywhere.