Welcome center to open at mansion after long-running battle

NEWPORT, R.I. — The group that owns The Breakers mansion in Rhode Island is opening a welcome center that has drawn strenuous opposition from neighbors, preservationists and many descendants of the Vanderbilt family.

The Preservation Society of Newport County is cutting the ribbon Thursday on the grounds of the National Historic Landmark in Newport. Railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II built the opulent 70-room mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1800s.

The preservation society is expecting about 500 people and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo at the event. Raimondo said she's thrilled to have a new, exciting way to welcome tourists to the incredible mansions and to Rhode Island.

The society has said for years that visitors deserve world-class hospitality at The Breakers, which is perhaps the grandest of Newport's summer homes.

But opponents said they wanted the welcome center to be built across the street or elsewhere, so it wouldn't "permanently mar" the historic character of the landscape. The neighborhood association lost a lawsuit opposing the plan in 2015. The Rhode Island Supreme Court declined to intervene in an attempt to block zoning approval last year. A groundbreaking soon followed.

Preservationist Ronald Lee Fleming, who lives near The Breakers, said he's still concerned about the visual impact. Paul Szapary, a descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, drove by the grounds recently. He said the center is larger and more intrusive than he feared.

"They really are supposed to present these houses and properties as near as possible to the way they would've been when families were actually living there," Szapary said Wednesday. "Putting a modern structure like this right on the grounds goes very much against that mission."

The preservation society says the welcome center, a $5.4 million project, will provide modern bathroom and ticketing facilities and a place to get refreshments. About 450,000 people visit The Breakers annually.

The one-story center is about 3,750 square feet. It's set within a cypress and beech grove to help screen it from The Breakers. The architecture was inspired by pavilions and conservatories from the Gilded Age.

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