The Preservation Society’s ambitious multiyear effort to construct a welcome center inside the gates of The Breakers is expected to finally come before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals on Monday, Jan. 27.
In what is expected to be their most watched vote in years, Zoning Board members will hear arguments for and against the project, which has been the subject of near constant public debate and intense opposition even prior to its unveiling last spring.
The hearing, which begins at 7 p.m., will be the first time the proposal will be discussed in public since suffering a stunning defeat by the city’s Historic District Commission in August.
At the heart of the matter will be a singular question: whether the HDC overstepped their charge in denying an application that had previously won approval from the state Historic Preservation & Heritage Commission (RIHPHC).
The Preservation Society is hoping that the Zoning Board will exercise its authority and find that the decision-making process that led up to the vote was flawed on a number of levels: most potently that the commission had “improperly excluded” or ignored the decision of state preservationists who voted in favor of the plan last year.
Indeed, RIHPHC concluded last year that the welcome center “will not remove historic materials or significantly alter character-defining historic features,” and that “the new work will be compatible but differentiated from the old and will not destroy the historic integrity of the property.”
Opponents, meanwhile, will seek to convince the board that not only was the HDC well within its charge, but that they rightly took into account the original intent of The Breakers’ 19th century design when voting down the project.
The $4.2 million welcome center has been years in the making and, according to proponents, represents a much needed improvement to the property.
If built, the single story building would comprise some 3,750 square feet and be located just inside The Breakers historic main gates off Ochre Point Avenue. A tent structure – which was erected a decade ago as a temporary measure – currently occupies a similar footprint.
Meant to blend in with its surroundings, the building’s design draws on elements commonly found in 19th and early 20th century park pavilions.
In addition to providing the mansion’s roughly 400,000 annual visitors with a dedicated ticketing and information portal, the proposed welcome center would also provide a small café, accessible restrooms, and a climate controlled seating area.
A historic serpentine garden path, long lost to weather, time, and neglect, will also be reclaimed as part of the project.
Trudy Coxe, the Preservation Society’s executive director, sees the design as the best possible solution for not only The Breakers, but the Preservation Society’s entire historic property portfolio.
In 2013, more than 900,000 tickets were sold to the society’s 11 historic houses, making the nonprofit one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state and one of the city’s largest economic drivers.
In an interview earlier this week, Coxe dismissed concerns that the welcome center represented a threat to the neighborhood or the historic fabric of The Breakers. Rather, she said, it was vital to its continued preservation.
“We want these buildings to be around 150 years from now,” she said. “But in order to do that we need to take care of them now. The truth of the matter is that it costs money.”
Promising increased ticket sales and memberships, Coxe sees the welcome center as being at the center of the Preservation Society’s long-term fiscal health.
“We’re not taking care of one little teeny building on Main Street,” she added. “We’re taking care of hundreds of thousands of square feet of architecturally unique properties.”
That may be, but opponents argue that the issue goes beyond economics.
Rob Beaver is the president of the Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA), one of the primary objectors to the Preservation Society’s plan.
“The Breakers is not merely a ‘house museum,’” he said in a letter written in advance of the hearing. “It is uniquely the grandest of Gilded Age grand estates that has survived intact as it was laid out 120 years ago. Its overall design, including the landscaping, has profound historic significance.”
The HDC, in their split 4-3 decision to deny the application, seemed to agree with this line of thought.
As Beaver notes, “Only two outbuildings were part of the 1890s estate design: a gatehouse and a quaint children’s playhouse. Now the Preservation Society wants to impose a new building which is much larger than either of these Vanderbilt outbuildings, and which would be forced in just six feet away from the gatehouse.”
That last point could prove critical to the plan’s final disposition.
While the gatehouse was not originally included in the application that designated The Breakers as a National Historic Landmark, Beaver believes the building should have been listed, and said that the Preservation Society is relying on what amounts to a “bureaucratic error” to further their case. In recent months, Beaver said that his group has been in contact with the National Historic Landmark program office in Washington, D.C., and is hopeful that the gatehouse will indeed be added to the contributing list of historic structures on the 13- acre estate.
For its part, the Preservation Society maintains that its plan honors the original historic landmark designation and would in no way infringe on the historic fabric of the property.
Preservation Society attorney William Landry spelled out the case in a letter on file with the city.
“Nothing in the northwest quadrant of The Breakers property in which the welcome center is proposed to be sited, including the trees, landscaping, garden path, boiler room, or gate keeper’s cottage, has been designated as ‘contributing’ in the historic structure inventory form, or in any historic structure inventory/nomination form,” Landry wrote in an Aug. 23 memo.
He further noted that in its opposition, BOPNA failed to offer any expert testimony related to the architectural design of the building, and instead chose to focus on landscape design – an area for which the HDC has no purview.
However, according to city preservation planner Matt Weintraub, introducing a new structure to The Breakers could rightly be seen as impacting the historic fabric of the property–and that is an area which, according to Chapter 17 of the city’s codified ordinance, may indeed be subject to review.
In making their own determination, the Zoning Board will be asked to focus on a narrow set of issues, which attorneys on both sides of the issue detailed in briefs filed in advance of the hearing.
Turner Scott represents the Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association.
“No doubt Cornelius Vanderbilt never dreamed, when he built his palatial Italian High Renaissance style mansion overlooking the Atlantic ocean in 1895, that one day it would draw 400,000 visitors a year from all around the world,” he wrote. “Seeking perhaps to outdo his wealthy neighbors, Mr. Vanderbilt chose a site that all could admire – from the outside. Occupying an entire city block, The Breakers was surrounded on three sides by public streets and on the fourth side by the Ocean. It was, and is, a marvel, a unique historical and architectural treasure designed by Vanderbilt-chosen professionals.”
The welcome center, according to Scott, represents a threat to Vanderbilt’s monolith.
Coxe, however, sees that argument as rather unconvincing.
“I just think it’s complete speculation,” she said when asked whether the omission of certain utility structures should be seen as an indication of the design’s original intent. “Look how Newport has changed. It’s a red herring. [Cornelius Vanderbilt] summered in the house for two summers. There is no diary. There is no letter to the children. There is no biography or autobiography written that can give us any insight into what his desire was for the property.”
Further, she points out, the family was filled with innovators and the welcome center represents a chance to do some new exciting things at The Breakers.
Preservation Society Board Chairman Donald O. Ross echoed that sentiment in a letter co-written by Coxe and published in the Providence Journal earlier this week.
“Visitors are the key to funding the ever-increasing cost of preservation,” they said, adding, “The Breakers alone costs over $2 million a year to maintain. Newport buildings such as Kingscote, Hunter House, Isaac Bell House, Chepstow and Chateau-sur-Mer are also extremely expensive to preserve and maintain but have no chance, alone, to gain the level of visitation needed to support their survival, without a modern welcome center at The Breakers.”
But Scott sees the issue a bit differently.
“The whole concept of historic preservation is, as the name suggests, to preserve what is historically valuable. To make sure that unique properties like The Breakers not only continue to exist, but exist as they were, for future generations. It is a little like keeping a lock of a baby’s hair – how delicate, how fine, is that incredible bit of gossamer from many years ago,” he said. “This case is about the best way of preserving The Breakers for the 21st century.”
On that, all sides would likely agree.
“We’ve got a great plan,” Coxe said. “We’ve got a great plan that’s well supported. We’ll make it. It’s just going to take time.”