By Andrea Carneiro
The van Beuren Charitable Foundation has made a one million dollar grant to The Preservation Society of Newport County to launch the first stage of a multi-year, multi-million dollar project to recapture the original spirit of The Breakers landscape while rehabilitating many lost features of the original design.
"On behalf of the van Beuren Charitable Foundation's Board of Directors, I am pleased to inform you that at the Foundation's November 2017 meeting a $1,045,000 grant, payable to Preservation Society of Newport County, was approved for the Breakers Landscape Rehabilitation-Phase 1," wrote Executive Director Elizabeth Lynn in announcing the grant. "The van Beuren Charitable Foundation is proud to be partnering with you."
“We are thrilled and encouraged by this gift. This endorsement by van Beuren Charitable Foundation means that work can begin almost immediately on this visionary project,” said Preservation Society CEO and Executive Director Trudy Coxe. “Much of the clutter which mars the view down the entrance drive, including the ticket booth and vending shack, will be removed. This opens up the serpentine path and the grand allée for rehabilitation in the very near future.”
The project will rehabilitate The Breakers landscape design by Ernest W. Bowditch to its period of significance, 1893-1938, as identified in the Cultural Landscape Report. The rehabilitation will reconnect the landscape to the house as intended, enhancing the interpretation and presentation of both. The rehabilitation will ensure that visitors have a seamless storytelling experience from the moment they enter the gates until they exit the property.
Because of the fire in the winter of 1892 at The Breakers in which the house was completely destroyed, Cornelius Vanderbilt II immediately set about rebuilding his estate and transforming the landscape adjacent to his new mansion—the mansion that would define Newport’s Gilded Age. He selected prominent American architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) to design the new house. Bowditch worked with Hunt to design a Renaissance-derived Beaux Arts landscape to match the house, including formally ordered parterre garden terraces and the straight, approach drives to the front entrance. More unexpectedly, Bowditch retained many features of the earlier picturesque landscape he created, particularly around the perimeter, employing canopy trees and understory plantings to define expansive lawns.
The entrance drives will receive a full restoration: potted trees will be restored, landscape lighting installed, chains removed and sidewalks resurfaced. The serpentine path encircling the 13-acre property and “framing” the house will be rehabilitated with a solid surface resembling gravel, featuring highly ordered layers of evergreens and ornamental flowering plants, and trees and shrubs to shape views of the house. The plan takes advantage of the service entrance to rehabilitate the exit corridor to ensure the visitor experience ends as graciously as it began; one that is safe, gently graded, accessible to all and historically appropriate. The welcome center grove, to the left of the main drive, will be reinforced with additional plantings to screen it from the street and house.
There are few places where cultural landscape enthusiasts and scholars can see authentic Gilded Age gardens in their original state. The Breakers landscape is a rare survivor—in spite of multiple changes, the 19th-century layout remains intact. The original landscape was meant to impress, intrigue, and draw visitors through a carefully curated and seamless journey that wove house and landscape into one integrated whole. This landscape rehabilitation will recreate that experience.
The van Beuren Charitable Foundation was established in 1986 by John A. "Archie" and Hope H. "Happy" van Beuren. Early conversations around the family table formed the principles that continue to guide vBCF today: encouraging family involvement, developing firsthand knowledge of the community, and operating with integrity, intelligence, and imagination. Having contributed over $67 million to the Newport region since its inception, the Foundation has emerged as a strategic partner to like-minded charitable organizations and remains committed to strengthening the community in its priority areas of interest.
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.