After more than 10 years of planning and work, The Preservation Society of Newport County was joined by nearly 600 supporters for a ribbon-cutting to celebrate the opening of its new Welcome Center at The Breakers on Thursday, June 14. Four hundred and fifty thousand (450,000) people a year visit the former Vanderbilt mansion, which is now a National Historic Landmark and an icon of America’s Gilded Age.
“This is an investment in Newport, in Rhode Island, in our history and in our economy,” said Governor Gina Raimondo. “I am proud of you and filled with gratitude for your commitment to Rhode Island, and on behalf of the people of Rhode Island, I thank you.”
The $5.5 million Welcome Center introduces visitors to the Newport Mansions inside a light-filled, park-like pavilion, inspired by late 19th century garden conservatory architecture, embedded in a newly rehabilitated historic garden.
“The Welcome Center will operate virtually unseen as it supplies a gracious introduction to all of the Preservation Society’s properties,” said Preservation Society Chairman Monty Burnham. “It will provide the cordial hospitality that our visitors deserve, with limited refreshments, climate controlled places to rest, and clean and accessible bathrooms. The 450,000 people who visit The Breakers from more than 100 countries every year deserve nothing less.”
Designed by Alan Joslin of Epstein Joslin Architects of Cambridge, MA, the Welcome Center was built by Behan Bros. of Middletown, RI, with more than 25 sub-contractors involved in the construction. The garden rehabilitation and surrounding landscape was designed by Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture of Cambridge, MA. Construction began in May, 2017 and was completed on time and on budget.
“There are literally hundreds of dedicated and skilled artisans, craftsmen, landscapers, lawyers, food experts, communication pros and others without whose expertise we could not have completed the Welcome Center and its landscaping so successfully,” said Preservation Society CEO & Executive Director Trudy Coxe. “To them, and to the many donors who provided such generous support for this project, we are eternally grateful.”
Positioned in a grove of yews behind the Caretaker’s Cottage just inside the main gate, the Welcome Center is easily accessible to visitors without obstructing or encroaching upon the historic view of The Breakers. The exterior of the Welcome Center is unified around a botanical theme, with its curved and patinated copper shingle roof, the entwined mullions framing the surrounding glass walls, the tapered columns, and the long sweep of downspouts at the corner/ Green finishes and copper bowls of hanging flowers further enhance the theme.
“This is a compact, one-story design that is in harmony with the structures and the historic landscape of The Breakers, and puts all the necessary visitor services under one roof just as travelers arrive on the property,” said architect Alan Joslin.
“The landscape design is of principal importance,” said Doug Reed of Reed Hilderbrand. “Preserving the existing massive beech trees and other specimen trees on the north side of the driveway requires a rehabilitation of the landscape and serpentine path. We are rehabilitating the character of the original Ernest Bowditch design, adapting what was a sunny, colorful flower garden to one that will thrive in the shade of the existing canopy trees.”
The interior of the building, capped by generous conservatory skylights and surrounded by floor-to-ceiling window walls, brings the outside garden in. The modestly-sized rooms are elegant in scale, preparing visitors for the grand houses they will visit.
The structure has been designed with the appearance of several interconnected pavilions of varying sizes. The ticketing pavilion contains a series of interactive orientation display screens that introduce the history of the Newport Mansions and ticketing stations with large touch screens. Across the foyer is the café pavilion, which features light refreshments. Visitors can sit inside the conservatory-like pavilion or out on adjoining stone terraces in the garden. Between the ticketing and café pavilions are easily accessible restrooms.
As the first place of orientation, education and refreshment for visitors, the Welcome Center is the face of The Preservation Society of Newport County, introducing its generous offerings, and its commitment to “preserving, protecting and presenting exceptional house museums and landscapes in one of the most historically intact cities in America.”
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.