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Shovels finally meet dirt on Breakers welcome center

The new addition, which will cost about $5.4 million, was proposed publicly more than 4 years ago.

By Sean Flynn

Staff writer

NEWPORT - More than 250 people gathered Thursday morning near a grove of trees on The Breakers property to celebrate the groundbreaking of a new welcome center that was proposed publicly more than four years ago but was in discussion long before that.

“This building designed by architect Alan Joslin and landscaped by Reed Hildebrand is going to be the most spectacular welcome center anywhere in the country,” Trudy Coxe, CEO and executive director of the Preservation Society of Newport County, told the crowd.

“It's an honor to be entrusted to create a building that is not to be seen, but easily found,” said Joslin of Epstein Joslin Architects of Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The building will be in a secret garden.”

The 3,750-square-foot one-story center will be located behind the caretaker's cottage as one enters the property and in the existing grove of trees. The center and surrounding new landscaping will cost $5.4 million.

The copper roof of the center will have an aged-green patina when it is installed, allowing it to blend into the surrounding greenery, Joslin has said. The gardenstyle architecture is inspired by park pavilions and conservatories from the Gilded Age, he said.

The center will have a technologically advanced ticketing center and modern, wheelchairaccessible restrooms. Refreshments will be available to ticketholders, but there will be not any cooking facilities in the center. Sandwiches will be catered. Each year, The Breakers is visited by 450,000 people from all 50 states and more than 100 countries, according to the society.

“I know of no other major museum in the country where you cannot buy refreshments,” Coxe said.

The center is being built to be environmentally friendly, taking advantage of natural light and ocean breezes, although it also would have cooling and heating, allowing it to operate year-round, society officials said.

“In no time at all, we will bid adieu to those port-a-potties,”Joslin said.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed The Breakers mansion in the early 1890s for Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his family. The landscape architect for the surrounding 13 acres of grounds was Ernest Bowditch, a student of Central Park designer FrederickLaw Olmsted. He worked with his brother James H. Bowditch, a landscape gardener.

“It is an amazing story of a landscape of great significance,” said landscape architect Doug Reed, who is working from the Bowditch plans to create the landscaping around the welcome center. The society also is working on a plan to restore landscaping on the property as a whole.

The society announced last month it had selected Behan Bros., with headquarters in Middletown, as the prime contractor for the construction of the welcome center. The project is expected to take a year to complete.

“After my 44 years with Behan Bros., I am humbled to picked for this project,” said Michael Behan, president of the firm.

Speakers at the event praised the plans and highlighted the need for the facilities.

Evan Smith, the CEO and executive director of Discover Newport, said he first heard about the plans for a welcome center from Coxe five or six years ago.

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Representatives of the Preservation Society of Newport County join other officials and dignitaries at Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony at The Breakers in Newport.

Andrea Carneiro | Preservation Society of Newport County photos

Michael Behan, president of Behan Bros., speaks at Thursday's ceremony for the welcome center at The Breakers. At right is landscape architect Doug Reed.


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“I knew immediately this was a fabulous idea,” Smith said. “The national and international travel industry are becoming more competitive all the time. It's all about the visitor experience. ... This investment is a quantum step forward for visitor services here and a bright new day for our destination.”

“This is the culmination of nearly 20 years of hard work,” said Monty Burnham, chairwoman of the society's board of trustees.

David Lees, former chairman of the Preservation Society's visitor committee, was present at the event. His committee recommended in 2000 the creation of a place “where visitors could sit down, get a drink, and have something besides Porta-Johns,” Coxe said. A tent was put up to provide shade for visitors, but that was temporary and will be replaced as well.

“More than a century ago, this house and grounds were the showcase for a prominent American family,” Burnham said. “Now it is an internationally acclaimed house museum. The necessary welcome center will be screened by plantings and will operate unseen.”

Opponents to the project have objected to the construction of any new structure on the grounds of The Breakers, although the Preservation Society has said the center will take up less than 1 percent of the overall area of the property.

The center's modest size and the emphasis on blending it into the landscape has been aimed at addressing the concerns of critics of the plan. That includesmembers of the Bellevue Avenue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association and more recently members of a new group called Friends of Newport Preservation.

Before the project could move forward, the Preservation Society of Newport County had to prevail in five different court rulings that resulted from BOPNA lawsuits. The plan also had to go through a series of state and local board reviews that included the state Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission and the local Historic District Commission, Planning Board and Zoning Board of Review. There were three Superior Court rulings and two from the state Supreme Court.

“Preserve and persevere have the same letters except for an extra 'e' in the longer word,” Burnham said.

Lara Salamano, chief marketing officer for Commerce RI, the state economic development agency, and head of the state's tourism efforts, praised the creation of a welcome center.

Tourism is a $6 billion industry in the state and attractions need basics like bathrooms for visitors, she said.

“This new Breakers welcome center will meet the needs of all the visitors,” said Lynn Underwood Ceglie, vice chairwoman of the City Council. “The porta- potties and the dusty tent did not do the Breakers justice.”

Flynn@NewportRI.com

Monty Burnham, chairwoman of the Preservation Society of Newport County's board of trustees, speaks during Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony for the new welcome center at The Breakers in Newport.

Andrea Carneiro | Preservation Society of Newport County

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