Welcome center roils tourist destination Newport

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 27, 2014 at 7:17 am •  Published: January 27, 2014

NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) — A proposal to build a visitors center on the grounds of The Breakers, the Gilded Age Vanderbilt family mansion and national historic landmark, is dividing Newport's preservationists, neighbors, and even some family members in this seaside city where tourism is a lifeblood.

The Preservation Society of Newport County, the nonprofit group that owns the 70-room mansion, says the center is badly needed to serve The Breakers' 400,000 annual visitors. Many opponents agree something is needed, but they want it across the street in the parking lot or elsewhere, not on the 13-acre grounds of the property, which they say would be irreparably damaged.

During the months since the $4.2 million plan was released, then rejected by the city's Historic District Commission, the disagreement has devolved into a bitter fight, with opponents who once considered themselves allies of the Preservation Society now accusing it of steamrolling or cutting people out when they disagree. The Preservation Society says it has explored the alternatives, and its plan is the only feasible one to protect the magnificent home built by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II.

"We have hired the best people, the brightest people. They're very sensitive to the issues. There is no steamroller. We believe we're doing the right thing," said Don Ross, chairman of the group's board.

Both sides say they're fighting for the future. Opponents set up a "Save the Breakers" Facebook page in August. The Preservation Society set up a competing page the next day, also called "Save the Breakers."

On Friday, the National Park Service weighed in, siding with critics and asking the Preservation Society to reconsider a plan it said could damage the national historic landmark.

The Preservation Society will go before the city's zoning board on Monday to appeal, and says if it's again turned down, it will go to court. In the meantime, the plan has drawn some high-profile detractors, including designer Gloria Vanderbilt, who in a letter to the editor of Newport This Week last summer decried the possibility that visitors to the "magical kingdom" her grandfather built would be greeted by "plastic, shrink-wrapped sandwiches."

The Preservation Society acknowledges some Vanderbilts are angry, but says others privately support the idea once they hear more about it.

The Breakers, named for the breaking Atlantic waves it overlooks, is one of the most popular historic house museums in the United States. The estate opened in in 1895, during a time when Newport functioned as the nation's summer social capital, and became the crown jewel in a city populated by mansions.

By the middle of the 20th century, though, many of the once-splendid homes had fallen into disrepair. Some were razed. The Preservation Society was formed to save some of those buildings. It purchased The Breakers from Vanderbilt's descendants in the 1970s and today owns 11 properties that collectively receive more than 900,000 visitors annually.

Those who visit The Breakers today must either pay admission at a small ticket booth or at a tent erected on the grounds during warmer months. Restrooms are in the basement or in portable toilets outside. Snacks are available from vending machines situated in an outdoor shed.

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