2017-02-09 / Opinion

Don’t Break The Breakers

By Ronald Lee Fleming

Over 130 people turned out last week to begin the battle for the historic soul of Newport’s great mansions. On one side – the Preservation Society of Newport County, which has abandoned its core values for the lure of big bucks that an intrusive entertainment center may deliver. On the other – a community of people who care about The Breakers, and all our great landmarks, committed to preserving Newport’s historic integrity.

The fight is an unfortunate one, since the neighbors have already proposed, quite reasonably, to place the visitors’ center across the street, off the hallowed ground of The Breakers.

But the Preservation Society has something else in mind. There’s big money to be made by violating the integrity of The Breakers. Why else would they spend over $1 million on legal fees, public relations and a parade of consultants (with a fundraising target of $5.9 million) to obtain what they describe as mere bathrooms and vending machines? Bathrooms could have been upgraded long ago and placed in the parking lot. Newport’s other cultural organizations would happily collaborate on an information center in the commercial heart of our city with the digital sophistication seen at Monticello, benefiting downtown business and reducing traffic.

No. The goal, beyond toilets and tickets, is clearly a commercialized center to increase the Society’s bottom line, to the detriment of taxpaying businesses and the neighborhood. Once this happens at The Breakers, every landmark in Newport will be at risk for harmful development.

A similar scenario has played out successfully for preservation values in New York City. There, trustees of two institutions with historic buildings – the New York Public Library and the Frick Collection – abandoned expansion plans that would have destroyed much beloved features after the community recognized the danger and urged them to stop. The same dynamic is beginning to take shape in Newport, beginning with last week’s event.

To pave the way for the desecration of The Breakers, the PSNC board has been purged of thoughtful voices. The original policy committee was never allowed to review the issue, and has been replaced. Meanwhile, the board attends “meetings” and parties in Palm Beach and Europe, while an oppressed staff is coerced to attend public hearings for a cause that they know would cheapen the majestic setting.

Much is at stake. The Breakers is our signature landmark of the Gilded Age. It must not be defiled by twinkling lights and the jingle of commerce and food delivery trucks. The opening view of The Breakers has a significance similar to the pristine view from Mount Vernon that Washington once contemplated across the Potomac, and which was saved by the voice and action of one determined Mount Vernon regent who purchased the land across the river, preserving the authentic experience of Washington’s Mount Vernon forever.

The grounds of The Breakers are as special as the imposing home, and their design was deliberate. The Vanderbilts removed existing structures from the property and hid their newfangled heating system in the gatehouse. The great serpentine garden conceived by the renowned Boston landscape firm Bowditch & Bowditch is unique. That is the historical experience that must be preserved. That is what the National Park Service warned the Society to protect. That is what eminent architects, historians, and landscape conservationists have lent their support to save.

The PSNC’s destructive strategy has unnecessarily divided the community and deprived the Society itself of incalculable millions in financial support. We urge the leadership of the Society to abandon their foolhardy plans before they waste more money betraying their mission. The community’s goal is simple: save The Breakers and protect Newport’s historic character. We merely ask that the Society abandon this flawed idea that violates its public trust and adopt the neighborhood’s compromise proposal or another alternative that works for all. Restore the wonderful walks and gardens to their unique original design. Work cooperatively with all stakeholders.

But please, don’t break The Breakers.

Ronald Lee Fleming, a former trustee of the Preservation Society and Historic New England, is founder of the Townscape Institute and a former member of the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

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