2015-07-02 / Opinion

Preservation Society is Our Economic Engine

To the Editor:

In recent weeks the media has run stories about attacks on the Preservation Society of Newport County. Its board and management are accused of disregard for their preservation mission, running the organization for a “profit,” and callousness toward neighbors and Vanderbilt family tenants at The Breakers.

Some perspective is warranted. Until the present management team and board took office, revenues were insufficient to maintain the Society's properties. A structural study conducted in the late 1990s indicated that an estimated $100 million would be needed to preserve these properties over the next 39 years. The board and management then made a series of decisions needed to preserve one of America’s unique cultural legacies; not all these decisions were welcomed by traditional members and supporters of the Society.

Today, the Society enjoys growing attendance and membership at a time when many museums are suffering losses. It is beginning to generate the level of funds needed to support its properties over the long term. Fundraising has grown well beyond its former levels. The Board and management have fulfilled their fiduciary responsibilities to preserve their legacy properties.

As is widely acknowledged, the Society has been the catalyst for Newport’s emergence as a cultural tourism “must see” destination. It is the local economic engine responsible for an estimated $100 million in annual visitor spending in the city, which supports many local businesses and families.

Yet, they are presently reviled for their efforts to provide an appropriate ticketing, restroom and refreshment facility for their most popular museum. A variety of preservation professionals and regulatory bodies has endorsed their plans, but to no avail among their opponents. Recently, that opposition has turned somewhat nasty and personal. Members of the family who sold The Breakers to the Society almost 45 years ago at full market value are accusing the organization of “destroying” the legacy they so willingly sold.

This is the organization that has made The Breakers into a museum respected worldwide, that has spent millions maintaining the property for almost half a century, and has provided rent-free housing to family members during all this time. This is a puzzling lack of appreciation for what has been done for The Breakers and its occupants.

The debate about the aesthetics of the proposed welcome center has been settled by experts who have endorsed the concept, design and location. Isn’t it time to move on and let Newport’s economic engine do its job of preserving these legacy properties instead of spending time and resources on a relatively minor issue? Don’t we all have better things to do with our time?

J. Timothy O’Reilly

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