A battle for the historic soul of Newport's great mansions is underway. On one side - the Preservation Society of Newport County has abandoned its core values for the lure of big bucks that an intrusive entertainment center may deliver. On the other - a community of people who care about The Breakers, and all our great landmarks, committed to preserving Newport's historic integrity.
It is easy, but lazy and unfair, to cast this debate as "rich people fighting." Labeling objections "NIMBYism" - as your Jan. 17 editorial did ("A proper welcome for Breakers visitors") - is superficial and wrong. In fact, the neighbors have proposed, quite reasonably, to place the visitors' center across the street, off the hallowed ground of The Breakers.
Something else is happening. There's big money to be made by violating the integrity of The Breakers. Why else would the Preservation Society (PSNC) spend over $1 million on legal fees, public relations and a parade of consultants (and a fundraising target of $5.9 million) to obtain mere bathrooms and vending machines? Bathrooms could have been upgraded long ago, and placed in the parking lot. Newport's other cultural organizations would happily collaborate on a central information center with the digital sophistication seen at Monticello, benefiting tax-paying downtown business and reducing traffic.
By Sean Flynn
NEWPORT — About 130 people, including members of the Vanderbilt family, gathered at the La Forge Casino Restaurant on Thursday night to rally residents against constructing a welcome center on the grounds of The Breakers and to persuade trustees of the Preservation Society of Newport County to put it elsewhere.
A newly formed group called Friends of Newport Preservation, which opposes the Preservation Society’s intention to break ground for the welcome center in a few weeks, organized the gathering and a petition drive “to relocate the proposed welcome center off the grounds of The Breakers.”
The Preservation Society announced its intention to build a one-story pavilion in the northwest corner of The Breakers grounds in April 2013. The plan has been through multiple hearings of the city Historic District Commission, Planning Board and Zoning Board of Review, as well as the state Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, and Superior and Supreme courts since then, but the new group is calling “for a fresh start.”
The La Forge setting featured photos and slides from the Vanderbilt family archives and many of the people who spoke and socialized had a close connection with The Breakers over the years, but none more so than descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife, Alice Claypoole Gwynne, who built the huge mansion in 1893 to 1895.
Paul and Gladys Szapary, a brother and sister who still spend summers in the third-floor apartment of The Breakers, and their cousin, Jamie Wade Comstock, all spoke about their shared memories of the family’s summer home to the crowd of people packed into the restaurant’s event room. Their common plea was to restore the grounds to their original landscape and not put any new structures on it.
The recent (Jan. 17) Editorial in The Providence Journal, "A proper welcome for Breakers visitors," contains several misleading statements and contrived arguments that deserve to be corrected.
Perhaps most egregious is the accusation that the Bellevue - Ochre Point Neighborhood Association is simply practicing "classic NIMBYism" by opposing the construction of a large new commercial building in the historic landscape of The Breakers estate.
This glib accusation betrays the Editorial writer's ignorance of both this Newport neighborhood and the fundamental issues presented by the Preservation Society's urge to go commercial.
The neighborhood around The Breakers, including Bellevue Avenue, was developed in the late 19th Century as an area of large houses on large lots. The grandest of these houses, such as Marble House and The Breakers, were worthy of being preserved as house museums.
This neighborhood has always been recognized on Newport's zoning map as Residential. And, like residential zones in every city and town, it needs to be protected against the continual threat of commercial intrusion.
In defending its residential quality, the Bellevue - Ochre Point Neighborhood Association is defending principles that are important in every Newport neighborhood - just the opposite of "NIMBYism."
The most significant aspect of the proposed Breakers Welcome Center is that half of it would be used for food service. Rhode Island law recognizes that the sale of food is not a casual thing, but requires a specific "victualing" license. Currently in Newport there are about 200 victualing licenses, and every one of them is either in a commercial zone or in a location specifically anticipated by the Newport zoning code (such as those allowed at schools to feed students).
Adding food service at a house museum such as The Breakers is a commercial encroachment in a residential neighborhood that ANY residential neighborhood would find threatening. Our neighborhood is especially sensitive to this threat since we have more than a few house museums that could opt for food service if the precedent is made at The Breakers.
Like all of Newport’s tax-payers, we residents believe that the many tax-paying restaurants, etc., of Newport deserve to have the opportunity to feed hungry tourists without competition from non-taxpaying house museums.
As to providing tourists with all-weather ticketing and restroom facilities, the Neighborhood Association has repeatedly expressed its support for those functions in a modest building located in the parking area across from The Breakers, providing conceptional designs for such a building to demonstrate how compatible it could be. BOPNA remains open and willing to work with the Preservation Society on a facility that meets the needs of guests while respecting the neighborhood and the City.
It is the Preservation Society, now the 4th most-visited museum in New England with 1 million-plus annual visitors that has been unyielding, determined that it must be allowed to go commercial on the unspoiled grounds of The Breakers estate, at the expense of Newport zoning protections and of the tax-paying businesses of our great City.
As William Bolger of the National Park Service stated in 2014 about the proposed Welcome Center: "Building a structure of this size in a virtually pristine historic property constitutes a significant and intrusive change." And he emphasized that The Breakers (a national Historic Landmark) is "an architectural and landscape sanctuary of the highest aesthetic order."
We believe The Breakers estate deserves to be protected and fully preserved, for the benefit of Newport and for tourists from everywhere, against the commercial urges of its current generation of custodians.
Linda Sawyer - President of BOPNA
"Rhode Island high court won’t block planned visitors center at The Breakers," Portland Press Journal
BY MICHELLE R. SMITH ASSOCIATED PRESS
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The group that owns The Breakers mansion in Newport is declaring victory in its long-running battle to build a visitors center on the grounds of the national historic landmark, following a decision by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
Visitors center opponents said Tuesday they’re disappointed they have lost in the court, but said they’re launching a campaign to pressure the Preservation Society of Newport County to abandon the plan and “to preserve the historic integrity of The Breakers.”
The Breakers, completed in 1895, was built by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II and is sometimes likened to Downton Abbey, the fictional estate in the TV series by the same name. The 70-room mansion, with over-the-top features such as platinum wall panels, sits on a 13-acre estate that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.