2013-10-10 / Opinion

HDC Should Be Applauded

To the Editor:

Readers of Newport This Week should be aware that the recent editorial in the Newport Daily News entitled “Breakers Plan Merits Second Chance” and published on Sept. 16, 2013 makes several unjustified assertions. The Daily News attacks the Historic District Commission (HDC) and questions the “motives” of the many people who oppose building a visitors center on the grounds of The Breakers.

The HDC listened to the testimony, held three special hearings focused exclusively on this issue, and reached a Newport standardsbased opinion opposing the Preservation Society’s proposal. The HDC should be applauded for its care in considering this matter. The attack on the HDC and its staff is unwarranted.

The editorial asserts that there are no “contributing features” where the visitors center is to be built. Does the Newport Daily News not know that the so-called gatehouse will be impinged by the visitors center and that the gatehouse was the chimney for The Breakers’ original furnace and heating system? It was placed away from the main house because of Mr. Vanderbilt’s fear of fire, like the one that burned down the Lorillard house, another building on the site of The Breakers which he also owned. The gatehouse is over the furnace room and near Ochre Point Avenue where coal was delivered for the furnace.

The gatehouse was built as an integral part of The Breakers and was central to the needed heat and hot water for the living quarters. The gatehouse looks like The Breakers and is historically significant and is contributory to the property, as it made the main house habitable. The heating tunnel, which connected the heating system to the house, was an engineering marvel when it was built, and is extremely important historically. It is no surprise that the Preservation Society disparages the gatehouse and the tunnel, and it is a shame that these features have been neglected and allowed to deteriorate.

As to the motives the editorial questions, consider the fact that the first public opposition to the visitors center was a letter written by Noreen Drexel in August 2012. Her letter was crisp and to the point and I doubt that anyone can question her motives for her principled opposition to the proposed visitors center. Mrs. Drexel received many awards for her active support of historic preservation in Newport.

Mrs. Drexel received the Newport Daily News Community Service

Award in 2001. At that time, on April 11, 2001, the Newport Daily News wrote a profile of Mrs. Drexel and in the article the Executive Director of the Preservation Society was quoted as saying that Mrs. Drexel “was on hand in the Society’s earliest days…and has taken a passionate interest in restoration and preservation.” She continued that “Mrs. Drexel is the type of person who raises the bar…she says you’re not going to be good, you’re going to be excellent. The thing is everything that happens here, she has left her mark on it in some way. She cares a great deal about these buildings. And she really and truly loves Newport.” Many people agree with Mrs. Drexel and her opposition to building a visitors center on the grounds of The Breakers.

The issue is a struggle between historic preservation of The Breakers and commercialization. The editorial disparaging objections to the visitor center is ill-founded; preservation of The Breakers is a goal unto itself. Visitors to The Breakers want to see this Vanderbilt masterpiece as built and unspoiled, not as an adapted, reused, Disney-era cafeteria. Donald C. Christ


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