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The Breakers Welcome Center

Welcome Center Update

January 22, 2016

Dear Friends,

The beginning of the new year is a good time to update our many supporters on the status of The Breakers Welcome Center.

To provide some context for where we are now, you may recall that early in 2014 the Zoning Board overturned the Historic District Commission's decision to deny the Preservation Society a Certificate of Appropriateness to build the Welcome Center in the location and of the size and style that we proposed. The Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA) appealed that decision to the Superior Court that same year.  Judge Gallo dismissed that appeal, indicating that BOPNA lacked standing. BOPNA did not appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Along with the Certificate of Appropriateness, the Preservation Society has received all other approvals needed to construct the welcome center from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, the Newport Planning Board, and the Newport Zoning Board.  So, what steps remain?  Below you will find a brief summary which I hope will be helpful. 


We hope the Rhode Island Supreme Court will hear and decide two cases involving the Preservation Society before the Court recesses at the end of June. A third case, not yet filed, may be considered as well.

First Case:  In March of 2014,  BOPNA tried to preempt the normal zoning approval process by going directly to the Superior Court before a Zoning Board hearing in Newport on our application for a special use permit (for toilets, ticketing and refreshments) had been heard. Superior Court Judge Bennett Gallo dismissed BOPNA's suit saying that this case was for the local zoning board's consideration, and BOPNA appealed his decision to the Supreme Court, which, under RI law, is required to hear it.

Second Case:  In the spring of 2014, the City Council, by a vote of 4 to 3, denied our request to sell sandwiches, salads and snacks at The Elms and Marble House.  The denial was based on their interpretation of the zoning ordinance. Our counsel maintains that state law limits City Council actions on food licenses to health and safety concerns, and that it is the Zoning Board's responsibility to interpret zoning ordinances. We appealed the City Council's denial to the Supreme Court.  Although we had no right to automatic appeal, the Court did accept our case and this case will be heard at the same time as the case mentioned above. This appeal is only concerned with food service at the Marble House Tea House and The Elms Carriage House.

Possible Third Case:  BOPNA has declared their intention to appeal Superior Court Judge Walter Stone's December 2015 decision to deny BOPNA standing to appeal the Zoning Board's decision to issue a special use permit allowing ticketing, refreshment service and restrooms in the welcome center.   BOPNA and two additional parties claimed to be abutters, giving them an automatic right to appeal the Zoning Board's decision to the Superior Court.  One of the parties said he never agreed to be a part of the appeal; another party lives too far from The Breakers to be a legal abutter; and Judge Stone ruled that BOPNA can't be an abutter because it doesn't own any property, much less property within the vicinity of The Breakers. IF BOPNA files and IF the Supreme Court accepts the case, it is possible that this third case would be heard with the other two.

Since there is no opportunity for a BOPNA appeal to the federal courts, the upcoming hearings are the last step in the legal process. Once this litigation is resolved, the Preservation Society will be ready to begin construction of the Welcome Center and again serve refreshments at The Elms and Marble House.

As you can see, Supreme Court review is complex and exhaustive and we hope this letter helps clarify any questions you might have.   Please check our website over the next few months to learn more about this process.  

Or, call me if you would like to discuss this issue further.

We appreciate your patience and we thank you for your support through this long painstaking process.   

Best wishes,


Donald O. Ross



Court Upholds Zoning Board Approval of
Breakers Welcome Center

(Newport, RI) The Newport Superior Court today dismissed all appeals of the Newport Zoning Board decision approving construction of the proposed welcome center at The Breakers. Judge Walter Stone decided that none of the appellants had legal standing to challenge the approvals.

"This is a tremendous victory for the Preservation Society and for the hundreds of thousands of visitors to The Breakers each year," said Donald O. Ross, Chairman of the Board of The Preservation Society of Newport County.

In February, 2015, the Newport Zoning Board voted 4-1 to grant a special use permit for the welcome center, concluding that it would serve the public interest, met all criteria specified in the zoning ordinance, and was consistent with the city's comprehensive plan.

This is the second time a Newport Superior Court judge has rejected the Bellevue-Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA)'s challenge to the welcome center. Judge Benjamin Gallo last year similarly dismissed BOPNA's appeal of an earlier zoning decision relating to other aspects of the project.

Preservation Society attorney William Landry said "There is no automatic right of appeal from today's decision by Judge Stone. The Rhode Island Supreme Court would have to grant extraordinary special permission for the case to proceed further."

Added Ross, "This has been a thorough public process, and we're pleased that it's finally coming to a close."


Preservation Society of Newport County Receives $1.5 Million Donation for Breakers Welcome Center

(September 8, 2015) The Preservation Society of Newport County announced today that it has received notice from the Trustees of The Helen D. Buchanan Trust of their intent to make a $1.5 million contribution for The Breakers Welcome Center from the Estate of Helen D. Buchanan. It is the largest one-time cash donation in the history of the Preservation Society.

"Mrs. Buchanan was an enthusiastic supporter of the Preservation Society for over 15 years, making significant financial donations to projects such as the restoration of the sunken garden at The Elms. This contribution, her largest, ensures that her community spirit and philanthropic vision will live on for generations," said Preservation Society Board Chairman Donald O. Ross.

Fanchon "Monty" Burnham, Helen's daughter and a trustee of the Preservation Society for many years, worked with the Trustees of the Helen D. Buchanan Trust to make this contribution.

"I am devoted to the Preservation Society and to the state of Rhode Island," said Mrs. Burnham. "As a native Rhode Islander, I recognize the value of tourism for our continued economic vitality, and I know that the Preservation Society is a great economic driver for our state. That's why we need the Welcome Center, to ensure that the Preservation Society's visitors receive the first-class treatment that they deserve."

"I cannot find the words to express my appreciation to the Trustees of The Helen D. Buchanan Trust for this contribution, which will ensure a comfortable welcome to the hundreds of thousands of museum guests who visit The Breakers every year. Their generosity and leadership are inspirational to all of us here at the Preservation Society," said CEO & Executive Director Trudy Coxe.

In 2013, the Preservation Society announced plans to build a welcome center at The Breakers (1895) commensurate with the property’s stature as an internationally recognized historic house museum and one of the five most visited historic houses in America. The welcome center will create an appropriate, positive first experience for the more than 400,000 people who visit The Breakers from around the world annually, giving them a place to learn about the Preservation Society's properties and other attractions in Newport, plan their day's activities, and purchase tickets or memberships. Visitors will also be able to enjoy light refreshments and use clean and accessible restrooms.

The project has undergone extensive public review, and has received all of the necessary state and local permits and approvals. With this latest contribution, the Preservation Society has raised $5.3 million toward its goal of $5.9 million for the Welcome Center.

The Preservation Society of Newport County, Rhode Island, is a non-profit organization accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and dedicated to preserving and interpreting the area's historic architecture, landscapes, decorative arts and social history. Its 11 historic properties--seven of them National Historic Landmarks--span more than 250 years of American architectural and social development.

Vanderbilt Criticism Unjustified

On May 14, 2015, the Newport Daily News published a Guest View column from Preservation Society Board Chairman Donald O. Ross.  Read it here.

Preservation Society Response to Vanderbilt Family Letter

On May 5, 2015, the Preservation Society responded to a letter sent by some members of the Vanderbilt family to the Preservation Society's Board of Trustees, a letter that is rife with inaccuracies.  Read the response

Newport Zoning Board Approves Special Use Permit
for  Breakers Welcome Center

On January 5, 2015, the Newport Zoning Board voted 4-1 to approve a special use permit to allow construction of a new welcome center at The Breakers.  Read about the decision in the Newport Daily News.


No National Park Service Review of Welcome Center


J. Paul Loether, Chief, National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks, wrote on Wednesday, September 3, 2014, "the implementation of the current proposal of the Preservation Society of Newport County to construct a new visitors center within the boundaries of The Breakers NHL does not require approval by the National Park Service (NPS)."    Click here to read the correspondence.

Breakers Landmark Designation to be Enhanced

The National Park Service (NPS) is interested in capturing much more information about The Breakers caretaker's cottage, the underground boiler room, and the property's landscape features to further enhance the designation of The Breakers as a National Historic Landmark, a move that is actively supported by the Preservation Society.

J. Paul Loether, Chief, National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks, wrote to the Preservation Society on September 3, 2014 that "The effort by the NPS to initiate the process of updating the historic documentation for The Breakers as a whole is focused solely on ensuring that said documentation is as thorough, accurate, and current as possible."

Updating a designation can take as long as 1.5 to 2 years. At this point, there is no timetable for revising the designation.

F I N D I N G  C O M M O N   G R O U N D

An Open Letter to the Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association

As the City of Newport's Zoning Board considers The Preservation Society of Newport County’s application for a special use permit at the Breakers, we’d like to make a proposal to the Bellevue Ochre Point Neighborhood Association (BOPNA):

Let’s work together with the Zoning Board to craft a permit that preserves both the character of our community and the success of our businesses and institutions.

We share the Association’s commitment to protecting Newport’s unique residential areas, where for decades the historic house  museums we operate have welcomed visitors in harmony with private homes and quiet neighborhoods.

It’s taken a delicate balance to make it all work, and the presence of these magnificent homes and gardens has helped sustain Newport’s attractiveness as not only a great place to live, but also a vibrant international destination.

The special use permit we seek creates the opportunity to assure that Newport’s balance of community and commercial concerns is sustained.  We respect the need to define the limits and standards of food service within residential districts, and together we can make sure that museum visitor conveniences never threaten the success of restaurants operating in our city’s commercial districts.

We are not proposing a restaurant.  We are proposing light refreshments--a basic, expected visitor amenity in museums around the world. We’ve offered limited fare for many years at The Elms and Marble House with zero negative impact on our neighbors. But we respect the special sensitivities of our museum locations within residential areas.

That’s why, for example, The Breakers welcome center as we propose it will have no kitchen, no dishwasher, no microwave oven. Only sandwiches and salads prepared offsite by local caterers will be provided. And we believe even this minimal level of food service should be restricted to sites with annual admissions of at least 100,000.

As we have offered in the past, we remain open to BOPNA’s suggestions. Getting the details right together, we can assure that the delicate balance that makes Newport special for residents and visitors is preserved. So let’s use the special use permitting process to come together on common ground. 

That’s the future we’re all hoping for.   

The Preservation Society of Newport County 

Note:  This letter was published in the Newport Daily News and Newport This Week on Thursday, August 14, 2014.
You can see the letter as published here.

Court Dismisses Bid to Block Breakers Welcome Center

(August 6, 2014)  For the second time in less than a month, a Superior Court judge today has sided with The Preservation Society of Newport County, dismissing an appeal brought by the Bellevue-Ochre Point Neighborhood Association seeking to block construction of a welcome center at The Breakers. The court ruled that the Association lacks legal standing to appeal a Zoning Board decision.

"We're delighted that the court has once again ruled in our favor," said Donald O. Ross, Chairman of the Preservation Society's Board of Trustees. "We believe that our proposal for a small, elegant welcome center at The Breakers is architecturally appropriate. Providing amenities like restrooms and simple refreshment services at a site with 400,000 annual visitors is a matter of basic customer service and human courtesy. We believe it is time for this small group of opponents to put an end to unwarranted court challenges which are wasting valuable time and resources."

BOPNA had sought to appeal the Zoning Board of Appeals decision which granted the Preservation Society a Certificate of Appropriateness for the welcome center.

It was the second legal victory for the Preservation Society. Last month, the court dismissed a separate lawsuit brought by BOPNA which sought to bypass Newport zoning officials and declare The Breakers a "non-conforming use" in order to prevent construction of the welcome center. Judge Bennett Gallo upheld the authority of the Newport Zoning Officer and the Zoning Board to rule on the project.  Read the court's decision on the lawsuit here.

Newport Zoning Board of Review Reverses HDC Denial of Welcome Center

(March 10, 2014) The Newport Zoning Board of Review issued its written decision upholding the Preservation Society's appeal and reversing the Historic District Commission's denial of a Certificate of Appropriateness for the welcome center.    Click here to read the decision.

RIHPHC Affirms Its Approval of Welcome Center Project

(October 2, 2013)  In a letter dated October 2, 2013, the RI Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission has affirmed its July vote approving the Preservation Society’s plan for a new welcome center at The Breakers. In direct contradiction of an opinion by Newport Historic District Commission staff, the RIHPHC states that the plan is in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and National Park Service Guidelines, and will not alter the historic character of The Breakers. Read the RIHPHC decision.

Read statements of support from the Newport community, preservationists, museum, tourism and business leaders.

The Breakers Welcome Center Plan

The Preservation Society of Newport County is proud to announce plans for a welcome center at The Breakers commensurate with the property’s stature as an internationally recognized historic house museum and one of the five most visited historic houses in America. After a decade of work, the Preservation Society's Board of Trustees has selected a design by the architectural firm Epstein Joslin that meets sound historic preservation criteria while providing for the comfort and orientation needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who visit The Breakers from around the world annually. Having already been visited by 20 million guests, The Breakers is now a destination itself within Newport, Rhode Island and New England. Recovery of the original character of the landscape at the entrance of The Breakers is a major feature of the project. The landscape design firm of Reed Hilderbrand has been commissioned to develop a plan to assess and protect the historic character of the site, including the preservation of historically significant specimen trees and plant and a rehabilitation of the perimeter landscape and historic path. Temporary structures added over the last 30 years will be removed, including an amusement park-style ticket booth, a portable restroom trailer, a vending machine shed, and a seasonal ticket tent. The welcome center’s one-story design adopts the curving motif of the original landscape, incorporating garden architecture inspired by the period, employing energy-efficient and environmentally friendly concepts and materials. Adjacent to the existing service structure from the 1895 Richard Morris Hunt building campaign and embedded along a wooded pathway, the welcome center is situated to provide immediate access for visitors of all ages and abilities, including fully ADA-compliant facilities not always available at historic sites. Occupying a modest 3,650 square feet, the welcome center will offer visitors information about The Breakers, other properties of the Preservation Society and the city of Newport itself, along with refreshments and comfortable restrooms. Construction techniques have been selected to ensure no irreversible alteration to the landscape occurs, no historic fabric is lost and the historic viewsheds – both inside and outside the grounds – are preserved. Also protected from any permanent alteration is the property’s unique historic underground boiler room and coal bunker complex. The welcome center’s colors and materials have been selected to work with the design and siting to screen the structure from The Breakers itself and from Ochre Point Avenue.