2013-12-19 / Front Page

HDC Approves Restoration Efforts

By Tom Shevlin


The east elevation of Beechwood, as visualized through an artist's rendering. A portion of the building's exterior wall is being removed in order to make needed repairs to the home's basement walls. The east elevation of Beechwood, as visualized through an artist's rendering. A portion of the building's exterior wall is being removed in order to make needed repairs to the home's basement walls. A pair of high-profile restoration projects by two of Newport’s most prominent property owners took center stage at the city’s Historic District Commission (HDC) meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 17.

The more pressing of the two cases involved Silicon Valley tycoon and America’s Cup winner Larry Ellison, whose plans to restore Beechwood into a private fine arts museum have become complicated after serious degradation to the historic manse’s foundation was discovered earlier this fall.

Work on the project has been constant for roughly the last two years, as engineers, architects, and construction crews carefully attempt to restore the former Astor estate to its original grandeur. However, like many old houses, Beechwood has shown how, more often than not, historic restorations go off plan.

If only the walls could talk.

Representing the application, as well as Ellison’s Eastern Estates LLC, were architect John Grosvenor and attorney Peter Regan.

The two have made several appearances before the HDC related to the proposed Beechwood Arts Museum, and both acknowledged that while their latest appearance had not been intended, it was indeed necessary.

According to Regan, a number of changes to the scope of work has been required since commission members gave their blessing to the project back in 2012. Most of those changes came after a pair of adjacent properties were acquired and combined. However, others were the result of discoveries made during the construction process. As Regan described, this latest application asked for commission approval to modify a previously approved design, and to remove and reconstruct portions of the existing first floor exterior walls in order to make repairs and expand the existing basement.

Located on the eastern side of the property, passersby on Bellevue Avenue probably won't even notice the work. And according to Grosvenor, the walls being taken down are located in the least intrusive area of the building.

Once removed, crews will begin to repair what was described as a very porous and potentially unstable foundation wall. State-of-theart mechanical systems will also be installed while work is underway.

Once the basement is repaired, Grosvenor promised that the wall would be rebuilt “exactly the way it was.”

Thankfully, he added, because of the utilitarian nature of the exterior wall and the interior floor, neither possess the “amount of architectural detail that exist in other portions of the house.”

Commission Chair John Shehan reluctantly supported the request.

“This appears to be a necessary project,” he said, while cautioning against “death by a thousand cuts.”

“I don’t want this to become a replica,” he added.

Regan agreed and assured commissioners that it was only necessity that brought the application back before the board.

“We are going to great lengths to ensure that the project is being done with the utmost care,” he said.

With that, commissioners voted unanimously to approve the new Beechwood design.

The commission, however, wasn’t quite as united when it came to philanthropist Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton’s request to construct a new greenhouse as she looks to restore Arthur Curtiss James’ fabled Blue Garden on Beacon Hill Road.

Representing the application was attorney Turner Scott, who noted that his client was going to great lengths to revive one of Newport’s most celebrated landscapes, which many had presumed lost.

Previously, commissioners had given their approval to an earlier application to demolish an existing home, built in 1981, that was positioned in the heart of the Blue Garden. On Tuesday, Scott asked that they make another critical decision and approve the reconstruction of a series of historic pergolas and new stonework at the west side of the property.

Once celebrated as the crowning achievement of America's Gilded Age gardens when it was dedicated in August of 1913, the Blue Garden took its place at the pinnacle of landscape design.

Crafted by the hand of Frederick Law Olmsted, the gardens had been commissioned as part of the sprawling Arthur Curtiss James estate on Ocean Drive, known as Beacon Hill House.

However, when the main house was lost to fire in 1967, the estate was sold, divided, and redeveloped. Now, a trust led by Hamilton is hoping to restore a piece of that estate, and is endeavoring to bring back Blue Garden.

Scott said that the greenhouse would play an integral role in maintaining the property and was designed to be as minimally intrusive as possible.

But neighbors had some concerns.

Among them was Lisa Stubbs, a direct abutter, who told commissioners that while she didn’t object to the presence of a greenhouse and was fully supportive of Hamilton’s efforts to restore the historic landscape, she did have concerns over the proposed structure’s location.

Others also penned letters to the commission, which were described as letters of “concern” rather than objection. However, with an eye toward recreating as much of the original garden as possible, Scott said that there are few areas where a greenhouse could be located.

In addition to the historic pergolas, which were described as extremely unique, Scott said that plans also call for the restoration of water gardens, ponds, and pathways, and suggested that there is evidence to support the presence of a greenhouse on the property.

He further stressed that the greenhouse would be a “subordinate” structure on the property, used only to help make the Blue Garden “a showcase.”

“Is the property going to be used as a wedding factory? No, because the zoning won’t allow it. Is it going to be used for parties and charity events? No, because the zoning won’t allow it,” Scott said. “This is what Mrs. Hamilton loves to do. She’s a gardener, and the greenhouse is going to help support the garden.”

Attorney Peter Sayer represented the neighboring Gubelmann estate. He also expressed concerns over the location of the greenhouse and asked that the commission be sensitive to the historic viewshed of the area.

At least two members of the commission agreed, and separate votes were taken on the two requests. The first, related to the reconstruction of the property’s pergolas, passed without objection. The second, dealing with the greenhouse, passed on a split 5-2 vote.

Work to recreate the Blue Garden is the latest in a string of historic restoration efforts led by Hamilton, a longtime Newport summer resident.

Among her endeavors are the restorations of the Swiss Village Foundation (another James property) and Wildacre, the Ocean Drive estate designed for the brother of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. She's also been integrally involved in efforts to restore the Stanford White Casino Theater and the Hamilton Gallery on the campus of Salve Regina University.

Earlier this year, she completed construction on a large shinglestyle residence on an adjacent portion of the former James estate.

James, a mining and railroad magnate, was Commodore of the New York Yacht Club. At the time, his estate was the largest in Newport, situated over 125 acres of rocky outcroppings which afforded sweeping views of Rhode Island Sound.

In addition to a massive main house that seemed to rise out of the rocky hillside, the estate was comprised of three villas, the Swiss Village, and a boathouse. And while the architecture of the estate was considered among the most important of its day, the Blue Garden occupied a unique place in the social fabric of Newport, as each July 4th, the gates were swung open and the public was invited in.

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