The city of Newport has long been the center of tourism for Rhode Island and much of southern New England. Known for its sandy beaches, sailing, historic architecture spanning three centuries, superb dining, art galleries, and historic landmarks, the city by the sea has welcomed millions seeking to explore, learn, relax, and to enjoy themselves. Tourism is on the rise and museums are in the midst of creating world-class visitor centers meant to provide the proper introduction to an institute, property, or collection. In late August 2012, an article published by the Newport Daily News announced plans by the Preservation Society of Newport County to construct a 3700 sq ft ‘welcome center’ on the grounds of The Breakers. Plans were not yet finalized; however, the Preservation Society had announced that the architectural firm of Epstein-Joslin of Cambridge, MA had been chosen to design a structure that would fit into the historic grove and landscape of the organization’s flagship property.
The intent is to clear away unsightly and temporary structures that house a ticketing venue, seasonal portable toilets, and a vending machine and replace them with a permanent structure. The new structure will house restrooms, café, and ticketing venue.
As the flagship property, The Breakers receives roughly half of the visitor attendance that the Society will see annually and collectively in a collection of eleven historic properties. That equals to nearly 400,000 visitors out of 800,000 that will tour the great mansion built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1893-1895. The Breakers is one of the top five most-visited house museums in America, among the notables: Biltmore, Monticello, and Mount Vernon. The Preservation Society is also one of the top four major cultural organizations in New England with the other three in Boston; the Museum of Science, the New England Aquarium, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Comparing to other institutions, the accommodations at The Breakers is subpar.
The proposal, as announced, sparked a wave of letters sent to the Newport Daily News, Newport This Week, and the Providence Journal. Most were against the proposal in various tones, fearing business would be lost at area establishments that are dependent on tourism traffic to the mansions on Bellevue Avenue, while others pointed at historic preservation and the thought of the fabric of the landscape being forever ruined. Whatever the case may be, there are many reasons to not build a visitor center period, especially on the grounds of the mansion.