Breakers visitor center opponents offer $200K for alternate plan

WELCOME SIGHT: A rendering of the proposed welcome center at The Breakers emulates the garden pavilions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. / COURTESY PRESERVATION SOCIETY OF NEWPORT COUNTY
WELCOME SIGHT: A rendering of the proposed welcome center at The Breakers emulates the garden pavilions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. / COURTESY PRESERVATION SOCIETY OF NEWPORT COUNTY

NEWPORT – A founding member of a Newport-based community group that opposes plans for a visitor center at The Breakers has offered a $200,000 grant if The Preservation Society of Newport County drops the plan in favor of a grounds restoration.

The latest offering, the challenge grant, is an attempt by Friends of Newport Preservation to influence both the public and the Preservation Society, which owns The Breakers.

Ronald Fleming, a founder and president of The Townscape Institute, and a founding member of Friends of Newport Preservation, is well known in Newport for his philanthropy, according to a news release. His challenge grant is intended to restore the historic landscape of The Breakers.

The pledge is to be discussed in a forum on Friday, at 5:30 p.m. at the Elks Lodge in Newport.

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“There’s still time to preserve Newport’s most important Gilded Age landmark,” he said, in a statement.

Mary Joan Hoene, a Friends member, said Newport residents and preservationists who oppose construction of a visitor center do not think it’s too late. A recent R.I. Supreme Court decision essentially affirmed the right of the town’s zoning board to decide the matter – it has already found in favor of the visitor center – but there is still opportunity for The Preservation Society to change its plans, she said.

Part of the Friends’ mission is to show the public how important the original grounds are to The Breakers history, she said. The Preservation Society, which purports to preserve historical assets, she said, has abandoned its mission in that regard. She argued the same purpose could be served by the visitor center if it was built over the existing parking lot, rather than a portion of the historic grounds.

There is still time to stop the plan, she said.

“It can change if the public wakes up to their failure of stewardship,” she said.

The Preservation Society, in a statement, said it has not received a notification of the challenge grant. But the prospect of restoring The Breakers grounds to the original condition in the late 1890s has already been reviewed, and rejected, said a spokeswoman.

The R.I. Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, which holds an easement on The Breakers property, reported that a restoration of the landscape would not be possible without removing many specimen trees.

“The Preservation Society is fundraising for the next phase of The Breakers Landscape Master Plan, and Mr. Fleming’s gift would be welcome for that project,” said Andrea Carneiro, a spokeswoman for the Preservation Society.