2014-06-12 / Front Page

Trees Felled at Breakers

By Barry Bridges

Massive trunks are all that remain of two large beech trees on the grounds of The Breakers. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Massive trunks are all that remain of two large beech trees on the grounds of The Breakers. (Photo by Jack Kelly) The reverberating din of chain saws and wood chippers at The Breakers prompted a flurry of emails and telephone calls on Tuesday among some Newporters who were apparently surprised at the sight of two large beech trees being removed from the grounds of the mansion.

The work is part of a historic preservation project which will rehabilitate the water-plagued underground boiler room, an original component of The Breakers that fell into disuse in the 1920s when the heating plant was moved inside the main building.

The repair efforts and accompanying tree work have been publicly announced and received the necessary approvals from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC), which holds a preservation easement for the property. But some residents were caught off guard and were upset at the city’s loss of mature trees.

Jim Moore, co-chair of the Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association, was among those being contacted by neighbors with questions on what was taking place. Moore said that some felt the project was ill-timed in light of recent controversy over the proposed welcome center at The Breakers, while others questioned the necessity of removing the trees and whether the work was properly sanctioned.

The Newport Tree Society was also expressing worries, Moore said.

Third Ward Councilor Kathryn Leonard voiced her surprise at the work crews, noting that she had received numerous calls from constituents. “There was a lack of communication,” she said, adding that “everyone is shocked” at the removal of the large trees.

Also commenting was Vanderbilt descendant Gladys Szapary, who continues to reside on the property. “This beautiful copper beech was planted about 80 years ago and is a healthy tree. I don’t know why they have to remove it,” she said. “There seems to be a lot of activity in that area and I’m afraid that they are going to destroy the entire stand of trees that occupy that space. They have parked vehicles way too close to other trees and shrubs and I’m concerned that the roots of those plantings will be damaged or destroyed. This is a sad situation.”

Addressing these concerns, the Preservation Society’s Director of Museum Experience John Rodman told Newport This Week that a public discussion on the tree removal actually began about 18 months ago. “We briefed the Historic District Commission on this as we presented the proposed welcome center,” he said. He also pointed to a June 2 press release announcing the groundbreaking for the present efforts.

He said that the trees had to be cleared away so that the historically significant underground boiler room could be properly preserved.

“The top of the room is seven feet underground,” he said. “To correct the serious water problems, we have to remove seven feet of soil from the roof. The excavator has to be next to the roof, not on it. Thus, we have to make room on the ground’s surface for the equipment.”

Moreover, the property is no stranger to tree removal, Rodman maintained. “We’ve taken down 15 to 16 beeches over the last four years, several of which were right up against The Breakers mansion. The trees threatened root infiltration. But we always go to the state commission to get the necessary approvals.”

Rodman said the Society was faced with the unfortunate choice of saving magnificent beech trees or irreplaceable historic architecture.

RIHPHC’s Executive Director Edward Sanderson elaborated on the project in correspondence to Newport’s Historic Preservation Planner Matt Weintraub. “The work being performed is necessary and appropriate to preservation of these [historic] features.”

Sanderson described how the two large beech trees must be removed from the site in order for the rehabilitation of the boiler room to proceed. “The trees were planted in 1939 and 1957 and are not historic landscape features … Bartlett Tree Experts will bring their equipment through the Shepard Avenue gate and cross the lawn, avoiding impacts to specimen trees or landscape features,” he explained.

According to Sanderson, additional landscaping changes are necessary to allow for temporary construction access. The main impact will be the uprooting of rhododendrons planted within the last 10 or 15 years, as well as some cypress shrubs that will eventually be replaced. A dead birch tree and a 10-year-old Norway maple will also be removed. The access path will be fenced to protect the surrounding landscape.

A section of the perimeter wall along Shepard Avenue has been dismantled, but will be restored to match its historic appearance once construction is complete.

The boiler room is due to be finished by the end of September, barring delays from inclement weather or the discovery of unanticipated problems. All tours and services at The Breakers will continue without interruption, although the work will require relocation of some guest amenities. The majority of the grounds will remain open to the public.

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