2013-08-29 / Opinion

Vote was Divided and Quick

There's something to be said for historic purity. The historic houses that line our streets are homes. They are lived in today as they always have been and as they should be.

The landscapes that we enjoy and the trees that give us shade were planted to be used as much as to be admired.

Newport is not Williamsburg, Plymouth, or Mystic. Ours is a living history. The challenge of the Historic District Commission is to strike a balance.

When it comes to The Breakers' welcome center, it becomes readily apparent just how delicate a balance that is.

Over the course of the last 40 years, the Preservation Society has done more than any other in preserving the historic fabric of the city and promoting Newport as a cultural destination with international appeal. So when this steward of some of our most important historic sites asked for permission to construct a welcome center designed in part to help protect its invaluable charge, its concept was rightly applauded.

But was it proposed for the right site?

Was this plan – the one that would place a new structure on a site that hasn't been disturbed for more that 100 years - really the best one?

The members of the Historic District Commission felt that it wasn't.

Their vote was divided and quick. There were no illuminating comments or specific reasons given. However, based on this commission's past decisions, its ruling should not come as a surprise.

On any given month, commissioners wrestle with individual and sometimes minuscule design elements: a cupola atop a garage, the windows in a Point colonial, the trim work on a Victorian renovation, or the shingles on a utility building. All of these decisions contribute to our daily aesthetic and, taken together, effect the whole of our historic home.

In this way, the commission plays an immensely important, and on Tuesday, an unenviable role. To be sure, we've heard the complaints from homeowners who have had to navigate the historic district process, and today, the board of the Preservation Society is likely to sympathize with its critics.

Attorney Turner Scott was right when he said that the proposed design was not good enough for The Breakers. But then, what is good enough to stand in the shadow of one of America's true architectural treasures?

There should be no doubt that we are better off with the Historic District Commission than we would be without it.

The same is true of the Preservation Society, and we would hope that the two parties will seize on a recent offer for an open dialogue and come to a mutually-satisfactory design to give The Breakers a welcome center worthy of its stature.

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