With construction imminent, petition pushes to relocate Breakers welcome center

East Bay

NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) — Construction on a new visitor’s center on the grounds of The Breakers mansion in Newport could begin in just weeks. But fans of the Newport mansion are taking up a fresh volley against the project.

The Breakers is owned and operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County, alongside 10 other historic properties. The nonprofit says its 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.”

But the Friends of Newport Preservation, a group of neighbors and fans of the mansions, pointed out Thursday that a petition they’ve been circulating online has gained close to 800 people — including signatures from all 50 United States — who don’t want the visitor’s center built inside the front gate.

Putting it inside the front gate, the group says, would not retain the history of the one-time home of the Vanderbilts, once the wealthiest family in the country at the center of shipping and railroad empires.Comfort for the 450,000

Approximately 450,000 people visit The Breakers every year, the Preservation Society says. “It is truly a global destination,” said the Society’s director of museum experience, John Rodman, on Friday. “With that number of people coming here to experience this part of American history, it’s really vitally important that we have the kind of visitor hospitality that the Vanderbilts would have wanted.”

“It is truly a global destination,” said the Society’s director of museum experience, John Rodman. “With that number of people coming here to experience this part of American history, it’s really vitally important that we have the kind of visitor hospitality that the Vanderbilts would have wanted.”

Right now, there are no wheelchair accessible bathrooms inside the historic mansion. A single small ticket window is posted inside the gate.

The “welcome center” will allow for tickets to be sold indoors for the first time ever, as well as the sale of sandwiches or snacks — and to install better, more accommodating restrooms than currently exist on the property, the Society says. The design has been in the works for a decade, and argument about it has also dragged on for years.

When the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in favor of letting the visitor’s center go forward, Rodman said the ruling followed multiple approvals from state and local bodies. In 2013, he said, “the project was approved by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, and that commission in the same decision also rejected the proposal to put the welcome center in the parking lot.”

Putting the building in the parking lot also is against city zoning codes, he said.

And if the building with bathrooms was in the parking lot, he added, “people would be running back and forth across the street.”

The building’s design, Rodman said, will be discreet, blend in and enhance the lawn. “It’s not visible at all from the house, and it actually begins to shape the grounds because what we want to do is protect the trees and protect the garden path that’s here.”Critics: Construction will destroy landscape

The Friends of Newport Preservation, the group that wants to preserve the area where the visitor’s center would go, don’t want the composition of the estate to be changed. The city’s Historic Development Commission ruled against the plan for the center, but the city zoning board overruled the decision. Other groups, including the Bellevue-Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA) have also been trying to keep the existing historic image.

Descendants of the Vanderbilt family have also signed letters calling for the preservation of the estate design. Designer Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper penned a letter to editors of The Providence Journal, saying the center plan is based in “greed and money” and that “the primary function of the new building will probably be directed more to future events than education.”

Mary Joan Hoene, a leader for the Friends group, issued statements Friday maintaining the position against building inside the gate. “The flawed plan for a commercial building on the grounds of The Breakers will outrage anyone who cares about the historic integrity of the landmark and preservation.

“It is similar to placing a fast food restaurant on the lawn at Mount Vernon.

“The Preservation Society claims it will present ‘world class hospitality.’  Rather, the Society is destroying The Breakers landscape and ambiance to the detriment of its visitors.  We will continue to work to prevent this travesty, and urge that the visitors’ center be put where it belongs – in the parking lot across the street,” she said.

The Friends mounted a Change.org petition in the past month, noting the original estate design dates back to 1895. Many signers of the petition have left comments in favor of either no visitor’s center or building it in the parking lot, noting that the proposed center ranges from “bad form” to “contribut[ing] to the ‘Disneyfication’ of the area.”

In a news release this week, the Friends cited the comment of Susan Butler of Jersey City, NJ.

“Do not ruin the beauty of this magnificent place,” she said.

The grounds themselves “are as essential to The Breakers experience as the mansion itself,” Hoene said. She theorized that the Preservation Society has given up on keeping history tightly intact. “In fact many people do care deeply about the historic integrity of The Breakers, which the Preservation Society is poised to destroy.  The Society’s objective of placing a large service facility on the grounds of The Breakers led it to obscure and in our opinion misrepresent the record it presented to the R.I. Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission, which led to their gravely flawed decision.”

Rodman said construction could begin in the next few weeks. It should take about a year to complete.

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