FIGHTING IN PUBLIC:THE PRESERVATION SOCIETY’S DESTRUCTIVE “UNWELCOME CENTER”
“BREAKERS WELCOME CENTER, 2 turn out for protest,” reads the sad headline of Laura Damon’s piece for the Newport Daily News covering our modest demonstration. As I lustily chanted “Save The Breakers now”, my friend Peggy Scott Hammond handed out informational flyers to cars and passersby.
With work already underway, why did we drop everything, to journey from Boston and New York to picket the Preservation Society’s board meeting? Because their pending “welcome center” to be built next to “The Breaker’s” gate lodge, could just as effectively be built elsewhere, without disfiguring an historic landscape or marring views from the grounds or the house’s windows. Why then, among hundreds of Newport residents, as adamantly opposed to the ill-advised “welcome center” as we are, did no locals join us?
The first question is easy to answer. “The Breakers”, Richard Morris Hunt’s exuberant and palatial marble “cottage” on the cliffs, is the grandest house ever built in Newport. Dismissed as a “white elephant” by Henry James, more recently it’s been praised just as unreservedly.
Newark Museum curator Ulysses Grant Deitz, extols its Second Empire opulence. Alabaster monoliths, ormolu mounts, onyx and platinum form French devised and made-rooms worthy of the Paris Opera or the Casino at Monte Carlo. “It boast America’s first known authentic 18th-Century room!” he enthuses.
Professor and architecture writer Steven Semes commends the house as, “a consummation of the Aesthetic Movement.” His colleague Pauline Metcalf, the architectural historian, applauds “The Breakers” innovatory bedrooms, designed by Ogden Codman. Academician-architect Robert A. M. Stern praises its role as the foremost house at the first resort of America’s unrestrained robber-baron-elite. Ronald Lee Fleming, the urban planner and philanthropist calls “The Breakers”, “A focus of our historic community.”
Each of these scholars reinforces our conclusion, Peggy’s and mine: if we can’t save “The Breakers”, keeping it pristine and unaltered, what can we save?
My passion for Newport formed and grew from discovering books in the Akron public library about the area’s architectural treasures. If Barr Ferree’s 1904 American Estates and Gardens wonderfully presented “The Breakers” in its intended state, Nancy Sirkis’ evocative photographic essay, Newport: Pleasures and Palaces, from 1962, magically brought the house that established the Preservation Society of Newport County and the dedicated people who founded it, vibrantly to life.
A preservationist par-excellence, Peggy Hammond spent time in Newport as a child. As an adult she helped to save New York’s Ladies Mile Historic District as well as much of SoHo’s magnificent cast iron architecture. An iconoclast-rebel, an activist and a great lady, she married Vanderbilt descendant John Hammond, the noted blues singer.
However, notwithstanding her former marriage or her Vanderbilt descended daughter, it’s no matter of mere lineage that draws her to this “lost cause”. “I feel it’s vandalism; violation and vandalism of the original design, of the original property,” she says of the society’s plans.
Though construction has already begun Peggy insists “There are always options. It goes against every preservation standard in the whole world. You don’t do this to a landmark property.”
The absence of local protestors joining our ranks raises a far thornier, much more complex issue. It’s been easy enough to depict Vanderbilt descendants and the Friends of Newport Preservation, opposed to the “welcome center”, as elitists! This libel of reverse snobbery goes that “the free-loading family members living in luxury on the top floor and their friends, don’t care that today’s paying visitors to “The Breakers” cannot get a drink of water or go to a decent bathroom.”
Selfless and single-minded commitment to founding, funding and fundraising, with their extraordinary family home, given for a dollar a year and opened to the public to set up the Preservation Society, all belie such nonsense. Mythic demonizing next turns to the property’s sale, ignoring the small cost, considering development potential and the gift of valuable contents.
The position of many vis-a-vis the “welcome center” calamity, smacks of a Trump-like anti-intellectual false virtue. So many fail to do what’s right, for fear of being called elitist. What’s actually at stake, is the preservation and survival of “The Breakers”.
Determined to foist a more Disney-like experience on tourists, it’s the society and their condescension that is elitists. They contend that visitors need not experience “The Breakers” in the same way that the Vanderbilts and their guest might have, that a glass and steel structure unlike any ever on the property, one that alters, interrupts and detracts from the naturalistic landscape, will not matter to today’s less privileged guests
Neither at Mount Vernon, Biltmore or San Simeon, is there a visitor center anywhere near the house-museum to diminish one’s experience. Does anyone doubt that “The Breakers” “welcome center”, is but a Trojan horse of event catering and restaurant operations to come?
Throughout time, exploitation, the blood sweat and tears of the masses, imbue the world’s most magnificent monuments. It’s not to celebrate inequality, but because of the collective suffering such beauty arose from, that makes Russians revere Tsarists palaces. Given all the oppressive misery and indolent self-indulgence associated with the Vanderbilts, it’s understandable that Anderson Cooper is uneasy about his connection to what was once the richest family in the world. A participant on a tour I recently conducted, bristled indignantly, “Anderson Cooper is a Vanderbilt? And I thought he made it on his own!”
Yet, in this generation one might say that the wealth of accomplishment represented by the Vanderbilt family is epitomized by Anderson Cooper’s career of crusading journalism. His mother’s and his great aunt’s artistry also form a portion of that positive legacy.
Apart from the transformative way the railroad changed America and The world, the most significant surviving manifestation of greatness wrought by THE Vanderbilt family, is a group of spectacular buildings, buildings exemplary of American attainment. “The Breakers” is the most significant of these, and it is imperiled by arrogance and avarice threatening to compromise a superb work of art.
If what was at stake was contesting racism, or homophobia, would Anderson Cooper similarly recuse himself of covering the story? I think not.
Similarly, it’s been explained to me, that Newport, “our nation’s social capital”, is like a company town. “Whether you are a guest or a supplier, this place revolves around parties. Even if you detest Trudy Cox and the “welcome center” meant to be her monument in retirement, you dare not cross her, or you’ll be crossed off the list.”
As an historian, such a tale about the peril involved in challenging a social power, in the past a hostess, like Mrs. Astor or Mrs. Slocum, today, the Preservation Society, rings true enough. But looking at Newport today, I’m also reminded of the ante-bellum south. Even when educated at Harvard or Yale, there were no public abolitionist at work there to end the evil of slavery. Certainly, some repentant masters and a few enlightened inheritors of slaves, set them free. Others worked discreetly behind the scenes to avert division and disaster. What it took to eliminate slavery though, was open confrontation, an army from the outside to fight for the benefit of the country as a whole.
With trees felled and work started, to save “The Breakers”, a masterpiece of our national heritage, that’s what’s required now!