$200,000 challenge grant to preserve The Breakers landscape: Open Letter to the Preservation Society of Newport County
The landscape of The Breakers is historic and unique. The gardens, serpentine walk, lawns, trees, and vistas are essential to the grand Gilded Age experience, no less than the mansion itself.
Regrettably, over the years, the Preservation Society has allowed the property to deteriorate. Now, the decay is such that rather than repair and restore the northwest quadrant, the Society has apparently decided to complete the destruction of the landscape and construct a large venue to serve visitors.
This is wrong. It violates the historic integrity of The Breakers and violates the public trust placed in the Preservation Society to preserve the property.
There is still time to do the right thing. To that end, I propose the following – I will commit up to $200,000 in a challenge grant to restore the serpentine paths in the northwest quadrant at The Breakers for all who visit the property and future ages.
The potential of The Breakers' historic landscape can be seen in the above simulations created by Heritage Landscapes LLC. At the same time, the Preservation Society will agree to the compromise proposed by the community and construct the proposed venue across the street. We will work together to raise the funds for a full rehabilitation of the Bowditch Brothers design, restoring one of America’s most original landscapes from the Gilded Age.
The current proposal does not reflect the values of preservation, and is a grave error. It is in the spirit of constructive compromise, and avoiding that mistake, that I offer this challenge grant. As someone who cares about the historic integrity of The Breakers, I hope that you will accept this offer and we can move forward, together, to preserve Newport’s history, unencumbered by commercialism, or egos.
Ronald Lee Fleming
F.A.I.C.P., is the founder and president of The Townscape Institute, a not-for-profit public interest planning organization founded in the United States in 1979. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners.
For some time now, I have followed the arguments, letters and legal proceedings for and against building the proposed Breakers welcome center on the grounds of the property. I understand that the project is close to starting. With the objectivity that distance allows, I can only conclude that the Preservation Society for Newport County has very much strayed from its primary mission to preserve and protect this incredible property.
Dollars are incredibly important to the sustainability of any nonprofit organization. But they should never come at the expense of the organization's primary mission. In this case, isn't that to preserve and protect the integrity of The Breakers and its once pristine grounds?
For the past many months, I have followed the arguments, letters and legal proceedings for and against building the proposed Breakers welcome center on the immediate grounds of the property. I now understand that the project and its ensuing demolition are close to starting. With the objectivity that distance allows, I can only conclude that by moving forward in this way, the Preservation Society of Newport County has very much strayed from its primary mission to preserve and protect this incredible property.
Dollars are incredibly important to the sustainability of any nonprofit organization. But they should never come at the expense of the organization's primary mission. In this case, isn't that to preserve and protect the integrity of The Breakers and its once-pristine grounds? To borrow a well-worn phrase, they don't make them like that anymore. In this case, literally.
The leadership of the Preservation Society is clearly more vested in defending its entrenched position and prevailing over the opinions of the Vanderbilt family, the Ochre Point neighborhood and the many friends of The Breakers, than in doing what is right for the true preservation of The Breakers.
It’s Time for Compromise
To the Editor:
It is unfortunate that the Preservation Society in Newport is not willing, like many institutions, to discuss situations when there is discord to work out a solution that will accommodate all sides. The current board and administration seems determined to build a Welcome Center next to The Breakers! In doing so, it seems that the only thing to gain is more animosity.
A perfect solution is to erect the building in the parking lot across the street, which has more than enough room, or to buy the house that the Preservation Society sold to Salve Regina years ago, located next to the parking lot. There are also other areas close to The Breakers that could be used.
The Preservation Society has spent money on attorneys that could have been used for preserving their properties and gardens that desperately need the funds for maintenance.
I have been a part of an opposition group, which was founded by Dorrance Hamilton. We feel strongly that the new facility should not be located on the historic Breakers property! It is time for the Preservation Society to meet with those who object to the placement of the center to find a solution for the good of the community.
I served the Preservation Society board for many years under the leadership of John Winslow and Jerry Slocum. We served the society, we met with people and listened to their concerns, and in so doing we always maintained the respect of the community and the donors.
Regrettably, it now seems as if the Preservation Society’s “silent board” will meekly acquiesce to this proposal, further damaging its reputation and relationship with the community, all because of stubbornness and an unwillingness to compromise. This is truly regrettable.
Mrs. John R. Donnell
(Source: Newport This Week)
Read the response written by Monty Burnham, Chairman of the Board at The Preservation Society of Newport County:
"Guest View: Newport Preservation Society Refuses to Negotiate a Compromise on Unpopular Breakers Proposal," feature in WhatsUp Newp
The Newport Preservation Society has refused to meet with The Friends of Newport Preservation to seek a compromise regarding the controversial proposal to build a party venue on the grounds of The Breakers, next to the gatehouse designed as part of the estate. In a letter to the chair of the Society board dated March 2 the community group had sought a meeting to discuss alternatives and find common ground. The olive branch was rejected by the Preservation Society.
“We are looking for a collaborative approach,” said Mary Joan Hoene of the Friends group. “We want to work together with the Preservation Society to make a plan that protects The Breakers and works for everyone. There’s no question that visitor services are needed, but the current scheme is poorly considered and contrary to the Society’s preservation mission.”
The group offered to share historic photo simulations focusing on the northwest quadrant of The Breakers’ property, the proposed location of the controversial new venue. Heritage Landscapes LLC, an internationally-recognized preservation landscape architecture and planning firm has carefully adapted photographs and records of the Vanderbilt Family, dating back to the early 20th century, to demonstrate what the landscape could look like if properly restored.
The Preservation Society refused a meeting in a terse, one-page letter.
FRIENDS OF NEWPORT PRESERVATION
March 2, 2017
Mrs. Richard “Monty” Burnham, Chair
The Preservation Society of Newport County
424 Bellevue Avenue Newport, RI 02840
Re: Restoration of the Landscape at The Breakers
We are pleased to let you know that we have some wonderful historic photo simulations of the landscape at The Breakers in the northwest quadrant of The Breakers, in the location proposed for the new welcome center. Heritage Landscapes LLC has carefully adapted photographs and records of the Vanderbilt Family, dating back to early in the 20th Century to demonstrate what the landscape could look like if properly restored.
These photo simulations are critical information that counters the representations and conclusions of the Society’s employees and experts, as framed in testimony and reports presented to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Historic Commission, and the Newport Historic District Commission, Planning Board and Zoning Board of Review. The Society’s flawed position is based on the current degraded condition of the area, the assumption that there is little historical context and data that would enable landscape restoration, the notion that the welcome center is necessary to meet services currently provided elsewhere at The Breakers, and the foregone conclusion that the welcome center will be built as proposed. This is truly unfortunate, as members of Vanderbilt Family and others could have provided information to the Society about the integrity of the landscape at The Breakers. That integrity is there. The landscape can be recovered from its diminishment over the years by nature, neglect and the presence of the visitor tent next to the Gatehouse. Regeneration and future maintenance do not need to require 50 staff, as in the old days, nor do the exact plantings have to be replaced to make the landscape as major an attraction as the house.
The first rule of preservation is to “do no harm.” The construction of the welcome center will do irrevocable harm to The Breakers.