2014-12-18 / Front Page

Beechwood Plans Stalled

By Barry Bridges

At first it seemed like déjà vu, with members of a local board hearing a presentation from an attorney and an architect regarding a proposed ticketing and orientation facility at a Newport house museum. But on Tuesday, Dec. 16, the topic before the Historic District Commission was not a welcome center at The Breakers. Rather, it was an application to make modifications to the façade of the gatehouse at Beechwood.

Attorney Peter Regan and John Grosvenor of Northeast Collaborative Architects stood before the HDC and described the gatehouse as the main entrance for the future Beechwood Art Museum, which is taking shape at the mansion. The Bellevue Avenue property was purchased several years ago by Larry Ellison, the founder and CEO of Oracle Corp., who will feature his art collection at the historic house once extensive restoration efforts are complete.

The most recent plans call for the gatehouse to serve as a “ticket house” that will control traffic in and out of the estate, with visitors entering on the east side before being greeted at a reception desk. Videos will be available to provide an orientation to Beechwood and the museum. “It is really meant to be an introduction to the property,” Grosvenor said. He added that there would be no more than 20 guests allowed through at one time.

On Tuesday night, Grosvenor lobbied for the HDC’s permission to make changes to the gatehouse that he maintained would make it better suited for its purpose. He reviewed his proposal to refinish the roof with slate shingles; raise the roof and add new arched windows and a door to the east porch; remove infill from the north porch; and install round windows on the second level of the building, above the existing windows.

Commission Chair Diana Sylvaria quickly intervened, describing her reluctance to this latest round of renovations. “Beechwood has undergone so much,” she said. “This gem of a gatehouse is the only thing left on this property that has not been touched. I really take pause at these big changes.”

Vice Chair John Shehan honed in on the feature that the majority of commissioners found most objectionable: the second-floor round windows. “To me, those windows make [the gatehouse] look like a Florentine church,” he remarked. Commission members Michael Conroy, Chris Fagan and Mary Jo Valdes, as well as Sylvaria, agreed that they were inappropriate.

Daniel Dias asked if there was any indication that there were round windows in the gatehouse originally.

“No,” replied Grosvenor. “When it was built we think there may have been second floor windows for sleeping quarters, but we have no evidence that they were round.” He continued to say that the windows were designed to capture elements of other buildings on the grounds, and noted that similar windows were featured in the carriage house before later being removed. “So in that general ethos that they were used early on – that’s where the idea came from,” he said.

Sylvaria returned to her point that the gatehouse was the last unaltered structure on the estate. “This is the one piece to this whole property that remains pure,” she said. “It has been the face of that property for over a century; I think it deserves respect.” She was also concerned that several historic district standards would be compromised by Grosvenor’s plans, such as avoiding conjecture, preserving character and workmanship, and minimizing harm from alterations.

However, she suggested that the applicants convene with city staff and commission members in a design review subcommittee meeting so that differences can be hammered out. The fate of the porches and round windows may be determined at that workshop, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 23, at 10 a.m. at City Hall.

Once any changes are integrated into the architectural drawings, the entire package will have to once again go before the full commission for a certificate of appropriateness that will allow the project to proceed.

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