2013-10-10 / Front Page

State for Welcome Center

By Tom Shevlin

The state's historic preservation office has shed new light on its decision to sign off on a plan by the Preservation Society of Newport County to construct a welcome center on the grounds of The Breakers. In an Oct. 2 letter from the State Historic Preservation Office, executive director Edward F. Sanderson outlined the process which led up to the project's approval and the reasoning employed by his office.

The letter, which affirms the July 10 vote by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission (RIHPC), is posted on the Preservation Society's dedicated welcome center Web site,TheBreakersWelcomeCenter.org.

According to Sanderson, in examining the project, the RIHPC was charged with determining whether the proposed low-slung building would in any way negatively impact the historic characteristics of The Breakers property or conflict with preservation standards issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Ultimately, the commission gave its approval to the project, saying in part that the design and location would not be in conflict with its surroundings or threaten the historic fabric of the property.

That ruling stands in conflict with the decision of the city's Historic District Commission (HDC), which in August determined that the project was incompatible with local preservation standards.

Like its local counterpart, the RIHPC issued its opinion only after a thorough review that included input from both the Preservation Society and objectors.

Taking into account information provided by the Society, the property's original National Historic Landmark nomination papers, information obtained through numerous site visits, and the comments of the objecting Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association, RIHPC staff determined that the project fell well within the bounds of a reasonable expansion.

The approval is, however, subject to an ongoing technical review by RIHPC staff.

In describing the project, Sanderson said that the architecture of the building represented a "contemporary reference to park pavilions and greenhouses of the 19th century."

"It is important that the welcome center design should be differentiated from the original historic components of The Breakers estate," he said. To that point, Sanderson observed, "The building's largely transparent walls, curved forms and complex massing are compatible with the historical character of The Breakers and its landscape setting without creating a false sense of historic development."

However, members of the city's HDC disagreed with that analysis, instead ruling that the design infringed on the original intent of the property and represented a conjectural addition that would tear at the estate's historic fabric.

For Sanderson, the notion of constructing the welcome center within the confines of The Breakers' walls is much less dire.

In exercising its review, RIHPC staff looked to standards put forth by the Secretary of the Interior, upon which Newport's own historic standards are built and expanded. In the end, it determined that the project "will not alter the historic character of The Breakers as an extraordinary 1890s mansion surrounded by broad lawns, specimen trees, and the great lawn open to the Atlantic Ocean."

Among the reasons cited include the extensive landscape design proposed to screen the building from view, its placement at the northwest corner of the property, and the architectural stylings employed by Epstein-Joslin Architects.

"The project design places the new construction behind a dense screen of historic landscaping and is located a considerable distance away from the mansion. The relationship between the new construction and the historic Gate House/Caretakers Cottage has been protected by a screen of landscape planting and compatible architectural design that differentiates between old and new buildings."

As a result, Sanderson said that the project does not represent a threat to the "historic relationship" between the Gate House at the edge of the property and the mansion at the center of the property. That opinion, he said, is further enforced by the heavy vegetation being proposed around the building – and most specifically the reconstruction of a historic serpentine path that had at one time rambled around the property.

In addition to focusing on particular architectural elements of the building, Sanderson pays equal or even greater attention to the merits of the proposed landscape features that have played prominently in the debate surrounding the project.

Through the reclamation of the historic landscape, Sanderson surmises that the new building's impact would be minimal to the visitor experience or the historic qualities that give The Breakers its architectural and cultural prominence.

"The Breakers' historic landscape has been extensively documented and evaluated," Sanderson said. "All reviewers have noted that the project is located in an area where the historic landscape features have poor integrity and that this area was historically screened from view. Significant viewsheds of the property will remain unaffected. The project includes measures to respect and rehabilitate the historic landscape character of the welcome center site, and, in addition, the Society is engaged in the preparation of a cultural landscape report as a step toward future landscape restoration projects."

He continued, "Although the landscape in the northwest quadrant presently retains some elements of the historic landscape design of 1895-6, the overall integrity of the historic landscape in this quadrant of the property is poor."

The Preservation Society's plan, Sanderson said, has "gone to great lengths" to protect the historic setting and context of The Breakers through landscape and architectural design. And without removing a number of specimen trees, the RIHPC determined that returning the property to its 1895 design is not feasible.

With those criteria in mind, Sanderson said that the proposed welcome center would in fact be a welcome addition to The Breakers property. Local authorities, however, have so far disagreed. Meanwhile, the Preservation Society has promised to appeal the decision by the HDC, with the Zoning Board of Review due to take up the issue in the coming weeks.

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