MY TURN RONALD LEE FLEMING

Visitors center will ruin Breakers

A battle for the historic soul of Newport’s great mansions is underway. On one side — the Preservation Society of Newport County has abandoned its core values for the lure of big bucks that an intrusive entertainment center may deliver. On the other — a community of people who care about The Breakers, and all our great landmarks, committed to preserving Newport’s historic integrity.

It is easy, but lazy and unfair, to cast this debate as “rich people fighting.” Labeling objections “NIMBYism” — as your Jan. 17 editorial did (“A proper welcome for Breakers visitors”) — is superficial and wrong. In fact, the neighbors have proposed, quite reasonably, to place the visitors’ center across the street, off the hallowed ground of The Breakers.

Something else is happening. There’s big money to be made by violating the integrity of The Breakers. Why else would the Preservation Society (PSNC) spend over $1 million on legal fees, public relations and a parade of consultants (and a fundraising target of $5.9 million) to obtain mere bathrooms and vending machines? Bathrooms could have been upgraded long ago, and placed in the parking lot. Newport’s other cultural organizations would happily collaborate on a central information center with the digital sophistication seen at Monticello, benefiting tax-paying downtown business and reducing traffic.

No. The goal, beyond toilets and tickets, is clearly an all-purpose facility designed to put the bottom line on steroids. Once this happens at The Breakers, every landmark in Newport will be at similar risk for harmful development.

To pave the way for the desecration of The Breakers, the PSNC board has been stripped of critical voices while the original policy committee was never allowed to review the issue, and has been replaced. Meanwhile, the board attends “meetings” and parties in Palm Beach and Europe, while an oppressed staff is coerced to attend public hearings for a cause that they know would cheapen the majestic setting. The PSNC’s divisive, punitive strategy has unnecessarily divided the community and deprived the society itself of incalculable millions in financial support.

The opening of The Breakers’ imposing gates to view this massive limestone Italian palazzo by the sea was perhaps the signature moment of the Gilded Age. The Vanderbilts removed existing structures from the property and hid their newfangled heating system in the gate house. The great serpentine garden conceived by the renowned Boston landscape firm Bowditch & Bowditch is unique. That is the historical experience that we seek to preserve. That is what the National Park Service warned the Society to protect. That is what eminent architects, historians, and landscape conservationists have lent their support to save.

The community’s goal is simple: save The Breakers and protect Newport’s historic residential character. The state Supreme Court’s recent decisions say nothing about whether placing a welcome center at The Breakers is the right thing to do. We merely ask that the society abandon this flawed idea that violates its public trust and adopt the compromise proposal. Restore the wonderful walks and gardens to their unique original design. Work cooperatively with other cultural organizations to build a true welcome center serving all of Newport.

But please — don’t break The Breakers.

— Ronald Lee Fleming, a former trustee of the Preservation Society and Historic New England, is founder of the Townscape Institute and a former member of the Massachusetts Historical Commission.