2013-08-29 / Front Page

Breakers Center Denied

By Tom Shevlin

A Preservation Society plan to construct a welcome center at The Breakers was denied on Tuesday after members of the Historic District Commission (HDC) voted 4-3 to deny an application that for over a year has been the subject of countless letters to the editor, public forums, and spirited debates among friends.

It was a stunning decision, one that drew gasps from the audience and acknowledgment from commission members that even they weren’t sure what the end result would be.

Turner Scott represented the Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA), which had opposed the application throughout the hearing. He summed up his feelings in brief closing remarks.

“I don’t believe that this applicant has made a case to disrupt The Breakers,” he said, adding simply, “it’s not good enough for The Breakers.”

Proponents disagreed.

“We appreciate the complexity of the deliberations that reached this conclusion and we thank all of the commissioners for their hard work on this subject," said Donald O. Ross, chairman of the board of the Preservation Society. “The Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission approved this plan, and we believe that there are errors in the findings of fact which contributed to the HDC decision. We anticipate the Zoning Board will give our proposal equally rigorous review and that it will affirm our position.”

Once again making their case before a capacity crowd inside the City Council chamber, attorneys from both sides of the issue implored commissioners to do what was in the best interest for The Breakers – and for the city’s historic fabric at large.

“For 118 years, no new structures have been built at The Breakers,” Scott said. “I suspect there’s a good reason for that.”

The Preservation Society, meanwhile, argued that a modern welcome center is critical to ensuring the continued preservation of not only The Breakers, but all of its historic properties.

But as commission members have done countless times in the past, they discarded the economics of the application and focused instead on the merits of the design.

For HDC Chairman John Shehan, the idea of siting a new building on the grounds of The Breakers betrayed the spirit of the original design and from the outset represented a troubling concept.

“The Preservation Society’s request to build a welcome center at or near The Breakers is a valid request,” he said prior to casting his vote. “The existing [tent] facilities are deplorable and do not make a good first impression on anyone visiting The Breakers or Newport.”

“In my opinion, the designers of The Breakers and its grounds (Vanderbilt, Hunt and Bowditch) intended that the only buildings on the 13-acre site be the three that presently exist: the main house, the playhouse, and the gatehouse that incorporates the chimney for the underground furnaces.”

He went on to ask that a cultural landscape report be conducted as soon as possible “and before any restoration or construction is undertaken” and extended an offer to the Preservation Society to begin a dialogue on an alternative design with city planners and the HDC.

Coming after more than nine hours of witness testimony but only minimal discussion from the board, the vote provided opponents with a momentary sigh of relief but is hardly expected to end the debate, as representatives from the Preservation Society vowed after the meeting to appeal the decision to superior court.

The crux of their argument is expected to lie on the Preservation Society’s mounting costs of its preservation efforts, which are not only critical to the various buildings it maintains, but also the city economy.

However, as Scott noted, the city’s historic district ordinance makes minimal mention of economic “need” as a determining factor in its decision-making process.

According to Scott, if “need” were applied to all other HDC applicants, The Point, Historic Hill, and Bellevue Avenue would be “filled with fiberglass doors, aluminum windows and conjecture.”

The one time that “need” does appear in the ordinance, he noted, was to discourage applicants from presenting a “false historic presence.”

“That,” said Scott, “is exactly what this building does.”

Spread out over 3,700 square feet, the proposed new building's design draws on inspiration from landscapes such as New York's Central Park, meandering through a heavily-vegetated grove that would be based on an original design lost to time and neglect.

Architect Alan Joslin, of Bostonbased Epstein Joslin Architects, said in previous testimony that the new structure is meant to evoke the design of the late 1800s, replete with expansive windows, a copper roof, ornamental metal work, and flooded in natural light.

He added on Tuesday that the design was well researched and the site that was chosen was deemed of “lowest integrity” to the main house and would be shielded by 500 evergreen shrubs and flowering plants.

But Scott challenged the commission to hold fast to its past aversion to “conjecture” – arguing that new buildings shouldn’t be constructed with an implied historical context, especially on a property as significant as The Breakers.

Joslin countered that the building was designed as a “background building” to the main house and “does not change the central form or integrity of The Breakers.”

More important, proponents argued, the building would help preserve the integrity of the property.

As board members have noted in recent months, while some $42 million has already been invested in Preservation Society properties over the last 12 years, more still is needed for maintenance and restoration. At The Breakers alone, the organization typically spends upwards of $1.9 million annually in normal repairs and maintenance.

Plans were for a large tent, which has served as a makeshift welcome center since 2001, to be removed along with the small ticket booth and concession stand located just inside the mansion's gates. In their place, a single building would be constructed, with a footprint that would total one half of one percent of the total 13-acre property.

According to Preservation Society Executive Director Trudy Coxe, as the state’s most popular cultural attraction, it’s estimated that the Society is responsible for generating roughly $100 million in economic activity and over 400 jobs across its various properties.

Several audience members – including Evan Smith of Discover Newport, whose board recently voted to endorse the project; Laurence Cutler of the National Museum of Illustration; Rick Nagle of the Fort Adams Trust; Marc Brodeur, the head of the state’s marketing efforts at the Economic Development Corporation; and Tim O’Reilly, the former CEO of Newport Harbor Corporation – all testified in favor of the welcome center, saying that as an attraction, the Preservation Society plays a vital role in the health of the local economy.

However, observers of the HDC – which is charged with a rather narrow responsibility of stewarding the city’s various historic neighborhoods – would note that in the past, economic motivations have been routinely dismissed as justification for expansions or additions.

And so, after 10 years of on and off discussions, the Preservation Society may now have to once again go back to the drawing board – or continue with its fight in court.

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