Donald O. Ross: 70 years of preserving our history

In the summer of 1945, peace was breaking out and Army and Navy towns all over America were changing overnight — Newport among them. Residents began focusing on their own backyard, and realizing what had in large part been long overlooked — an extraordinary inventory of historic buildings, many of them deteriorating rapidly, which were deserving and in need of preservation.

Katherine Warren and a group of visionary women and men in Newport set out to preserve that heritage before it was lost, creating The Preservation Society of Newport County. The initial focus was on saving individual 18th century buildings, but eventually it expanded to preserving the overall historic atmosphere of the city. Over time, as public support and interest grew, it became clear that Newport’s historic buildings could form the foundation of a new post-war economy.

The history and architectural treasure trove of Newport would make an ideal drawing card for tourism.

Since its inception 70 years ago, the Preservation Society has saved scores of historic structures in Newport County through ownership and easements. Today, 88 acres of manicured gardens and landscapes with more than 1,800 trees form a nationally recognized arboretum surrounding its properties. Seven properties have been designated as National Historic Landmarks. Gaining accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums in 2004 was a major milestone, establishing the Preservation Society’s management in the top 15 percent of museums in America.

From that time to this, our mission has been the same — to protect, preserve and present Newport’s historic legacy. In the last 15 years alone, more than $20 million has been spent on preservation and maintenance of our buildings. The annual budget has grown during the same period from $9 million a year to more than $20 million — half of that in wages and benefits.

Public support for the Preservation Society is reflected in its fundraising, with donations to this year’s annual fund exceeding $1 million for the first time ever, from the largest number of individual donors ever. Our comprehensive campaign has exceeded its $20 million goal by 25 percent and is still under way. In the last 10 years, membership has grown from 2,500 to 30,000.

This year, the Preservation Society will generate more than $110 million in direct economic activity in the city of Newport, supporting nearly 2,000 jobs and employing 400 people. More than 600,000 people took more than 900,000 tours at the Preservation Society in 2014, putting it alongside the Museum of Fine Arts, the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science, all in Boston, as one of the four top-tier museums in New England in attendance. There have been more than 35 million visits to the mansions during the past 70 years. Visitor reviews from every source acclaim the quality of a visit to the Newport Mansions.

Newport residents will enjoy free admission through 2015, and other Newport Country residents will enjoy three free weekends this year. New membership options are now available.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Newport’s economy and a major contributor to Rhode Island’s economy, but it also sustains our quality of life. From performing arts and museums to night life, our visitors from around the world support our recreation and entertainment venues. This makes Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plan to reignite state tourism marketing in Rhode Island especially welcome.

A re-energized state tourism effort, working in tandem with the incredibly successful Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, Discover Newport and other regional tourism offices, will encourage the private sector to increase its investment in Rhode Island’s quality of life. All need to work together with the private sector’s tourism partners, of which the Preservation Society is a leader.

As we look forward to the next 70 years, the road is challenging. But we are encouraged because we have successfully traversed an equally challenging road to get here. We thank every one of our 30,000 members and our supporters worldwide who make all this possible. Our commitment is to continue protecting, preserving and presenting our many properties and landscapes as Katherine Warren and our founders dreamed.

Donald O. Ross is chairman of the board of The Preservation Society of Newport County.