Fight over Vanderbilts’ Breakers mansion goes to high court

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Rhode Island Supreme Court is stepping into a fight that has pitted dozens of members of the Vanderbilt family against a non-profit that owns several well-known mansions in Newport.

The disagreement centres on whether the group should be allowed to build a visitors centre on the grounds of the spectacular Vanderbilt mansion The Breakers, a national historic landmark.

The high court on Tuesday will hear arguments about two lawsuits over the plan to build the visitors centre on the 13-acre grounds of the mansion, built in the late 1800s by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Opponents — including designer Gloria Vanderbilt and nearly four dozen other members of the Vanderbilt family, as well as dozens of preservationists and others — have said the plan would “permanently mar this national symbol of Newport’s Gilded Age.”

The Preservation Society of Newport Country, which owns The Breakers and several other mansions in the wealthy resort town, says it wants to build the visitors centre in a little-used portion of the grounds to better serve its 400,000 annual visitors with improved ticketing and restroom facilities, as well as a place to buy pre-made sandwiches and refreshments. The society is Rhode Island’s largest cultural institution by revenue, bringing in $22 million in 2014.

Many of the arguments out of the courtroom focus on whether the project would affect the historical integrity of the landscape that surrounds the 70-room mansion. Tuesday’s arguments are not expected to focus on that question, but rather on the more mundane intricacies of local zoning laws, and whether the Preservation Society should be allowed to serve food on its properties.

A neighbours group, the Bellevue-Ochre Point Neighborhood Association, is fighting the city zoning board’s approval of the plan. The lawyer for the neighbours group wrote in papers filed ahead of the arguments that the questions before the court will have “profound and lasting implications” on how land is used in Newport.