By WPRO News and Jennifer McDermott, the Associated Press
“Let’s be honest – this wasn’t easy, was it?” said Governor Gina Raimondo at a ribbon cutting for a new welcome center at The Breakers mansion in Newport, seemingly well aware of the long battle leading to its opening.
The $5.4 million welcome center provides bathrooms, ticket facilities, and a cafe. The one-story center is about 3,750 square feet and is set within a cypress and beech grove to help screen it from The Breakers. The architecture was inspired by pavilions and conservatories from the Gilded Age.
The center drew opposition from neighbors, preservationists, and many descendants of the Vanderbilt family. Opponents said they wanted the welcome center to be built across the street or elsewhere, so it wouldn’t “permanently mar” the historic character of the landscape. The neighborhood association lost a lawsuit opposing the plan in 2015, and the Rhode Island Supreme Court declined to intervene in an attempt to block zoning approval last year. A groundbreaking soon followed.
Paul Szapary, a descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, drove by the grounds recently. He said the center is larger and more intrusive than he feared.
“They really are supposed to present these houses and properties as near as possible to the way they would’ve been when families were actually living there,” Szapary said Wednesday. “Putting a modern structure like this right on the grounds goes very much against that mission.”
However, The Preservation Society of Newport County has said for years that the roughly 450,000 people who visit The Breakers annually deserve world-class hospitality at the mansion, which is perhaps the grandest of Newport’s summer homes. When it opened on Thursday night, the Society’s Executive Director Trudy Coxe said the new accommodations are a vast improvement from what was there before.
“It was not acceptable to have port-a-johns on the front lawn of The Breakers and it was not acceptable to be selling tickets out of a ticket tent, and that’s what our life was like until this building got built. We are a very popular attraction, and I believe that we need to treat our visitors in the same way that Cornelius Vanderbilt would have treated his guests when they came to visit The Breakers,” Coxe said. “And that’s what we’re doing now. We’re treating our guests with great respect and great dignity, and to me that trumps everything.”