High court steps into fight on Vanderbilts’ Breakers mansion

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Rhode Island’s highest court heard arguments Tuesday in a fight that has pitted dozens of members of the Vanderbilt family against a non-profit that owns several Gilded Age mansions in Newport.

The non-profit Preservation Society of Newport County wants to build a visitors centre on the grounds of The Breakers, a spectacular mansion built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II.

Dozens of preservationists, as well as designer Gloria Vanderbilt and nearly four dozen Vanderbilt relatives, have said the centre as planned would “permanently mar” the national historic landmark.

Two members of the Vanderbilt family attended Tuesday’s arguments before the Rhode Island Supreme Court over two separate lawsuits. But the arguments involved zoning and licensing issues raised by neighbours and the city, not the family’s objections and the question of whether the centre would hurt the historical integrity of the site.

The Preservation Society wants to build the centre to give visitors a place to buy snacks and sandwiches, use accessible restrooms and buy tickets indoors. They have argued The Breakers is a museum, and museums should be allowed to serve food.

Daniel Prentiss, a lawyer for the neighbours’ group, told the Supreme Court that The Breakers is in a residential zone in “one of the most famous neighbourhoods in the country.” The neighbourhood is packed with mansions and bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and Cliff Walk.

Allowing food to be served at The Breakers, Prentiss said, could open the door to museums serving food elsewhere in the neighbourhood and city.

But Preservation Society lawyer William Landry said most museums around the world allow patrons to have a glass of wine and a meal, and the Preservation Society would have to meet certain requirements for food service.

“This is no license to have McDonald’s in every museum in Newport,” Landry told the justices, adding that The Breakers hosts 400,000 people from all over the world every year.

The Breakers, perhaps the grandest of Newport’s summer homes, is not air conditioned.

“It’s a miserable place to be in July and August,” Landry said. “We can’t sell an elderly lady a bottle of water?”

Landry said after the arguments that he expects the court to issue a decision within 90 days.

Gladys and Paul Szapary, great-great-grandchildren of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, attended the arguments even though they are not parties to the lawsuits. They have been involved in efforts to pressure the Preservation Society to build the visitors centre in a parking lot, rather than on the grounds.

“We feel that the input of the family has been diminished in the last few years by the Preservation Society,” Paul Szapary said. “We love Newport, and we love this house. Our interests are to preserve it and show it in the best way possible.”

Gladys Szapary said she believes they are doing the right thing by fighting the plan.

“We’re trying to protect The Breakers property,” his sister said. “We’re going to keep going.”