This story was originally published at 4 am on April 4th, it has been updated to include a response from the Preservation Society of Newport County.
Ronald Fleming, founder and president of The Townscape Institute and a member of the Friends of Newport Preservation, has offered a $200,000 challenge grant to the Trustees of The Preservation Society of Newport County to stop the construction of the Welcome Center on the grounds of The Breakers and to fund the restoration of The Breakers historic landscape.
The proposal comes as the Preservation Society of Newport County prepares to build a welcome center at The Breakers, or as the Friends Of Newport Preservation describe it – “demolish the northwest quadrant of the historic Breakers landscape to construct a controversial ‘visitor center’.”
Fleming says that in an open letter to the Society’s Board of Trustees he wrote “Regrettably, over the years, the Preservation Society has allowed the property to deteriorate. Now, the decay is such that rather than repair and restore the northwest quadrant, the Society has apparently decided to complete the destruction of the landscape and construct a large venue to serve visitors.”
“There’s still time to preserve Newport’s most important Gilded Age landmark” Fleming continued in a press release. “The Heritage Landscapes renderings show the potential for saving this important American landscape. I am prepared to step up and do what it takes to protect and restore The Breakers’ property.”
“There is still time to do the right thing,” says Fleming in the prepared release. “This challenge grant is a call to the community to say that the Society is violating the public trust placed in them to preserve and protect the property. We need to work together to honor the values of preservation and respect the Breakers legacy.”
In closing, Fleming states in the prepared statement, “It is in the spirit of constructive compromise, and avoiding that mistake, that I offer this challenge grant. As someone who cares about the historic integrity of The Breakers, I hope that you will accept this offer and we can move forward, together, to preserve Newport’s history, unencumbered by commercialism, or egos.”
The Preservation Society of Newport County issued the following statement on Tuesday at 9:30 am.
“We have not received any such communication from Mr. Fleming,” said Preservation Society spokesperson Andrea Carneiro. “However, the plan he is proposing as an alternative to The Breakers welcome center was presented to and reviewed by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission in 2013. The Commission holds an easement on The Breakers property and in its approval of the welcome center, the Commission specifically found that the landscape plan offered by Patricia O’Donnell and Heritage Landscapes ‘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.”
The Friends of Newport Preservation is a community group “dedicated to protecting and preserving Newport’s historic landmarks, and is well-known in Newport for his philanthropy”. Other members of the group include Joanne and Henry Breyer, Donald Christ, Maureen Donnell, Linda Gordon, Dodo Hamilton, Mary Joan Hoene, Judy McLennan, Stephanie McLennan, Elizabeth “Lisette” Prince, Diana and Jerry Slocum, Gladys V. Szapary, Paul L. Szapary, Gladys Roberts Thomas and William Vareika.
Recently the group released historic photo simulations focusing on the northwest quadrant of The Breakers’ property, the proposed location of the controversial new venue. The group says that Heritage Landscapes LLC, an internationally-recognized preservation landscape architecture and planning firm, has carefully adapted photographs and records of the Vanderbilt Family, dating back to the early 20th century, to demonstrate what the landscape could look like if properly restored.
The Friends of Newport Preservation announced that the significance of the landscape and the possibilities for restoration, along with alternatives for a visitor facility and Mr. Fleming’s pledge will be discussed in depth on Friday, April 7th, at 5:30 p.m. at the Elks Lodge, 141 Pelham Street in Newport. The forum and cocktail party following will provide an opportunity for community discussion and engagement.
Mr. Fleming’s challenge grant is contingent on the Society relocating the unpopular visitor center to a location off The Breakers property. The group says that they have presented the Society with reasonable compromise locations including across the street and has sought an open dialogue throughout the process.