Yesterday’s ribbon-cutting for the Welcome Center at The Breakers unveiled a tourist attraction in its own right. That’s saying a lot in Newport.
It is that beautiful.
In the weeks leading up to its completion, I kept trolling online for recent photographs to get a hint of its appearance. All I saw were the same pretty renderings – which meant nothing, as projects often slip between cup and lip. The Preservation Society of Newport County kept such a tight lid on that I felt some concern the building might not look as lovely as promised by its renderings. But when I stepped through the gate on Ochre Point Avenue and glanced left, my sense of relief was almost punishing – O ye of little faith! My relief was as great as my joy at its loveliness.
Just beyond the caretaker’s cottage, the Welcome Center sat beneath an undulating roofscape of hand-shaped copper tiles held down by crossed copper ribbons. It was the first hint that this was no ordinary tourist services facility. It was a work of art whose virtuosity grew the closer I approached. Each delicately mullioned window featured a surrounding structure of multiple levels of molding, attesting to the designers’ recognition that this was “false history” at its finest. When is the last time you enjoyed a new building that wallowed in a profusion of its own detail? The Welcome Center does exactly that.
“False history” is a concept that modernists use to demonize new buildings inspired by the best techniques of architecture’s past. Modernism prides itself on its refusal to learn the lessons of history. The lessons of history are exactly what new traditional buildings embrace. They try to strengthen rather than to weaken a city’s brand, and that’s what the Welcome Center does. Among remarks by society grandees under a nearby tent, PSNC chairwoman Monty Burnham noted its “complete harmony with The Breakers.” Precisely.
The Welcome Center and The Breakers, designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the 1890s, are very different in style, but their styles are an outgrowth of centuries of tradition, which is why they harmonize naturally. Part of this is aggressive attention to detail. That’s why the builders at Behan Bros., the architects Alan Joslin and Deborah Epstein, the landscape designers of Reed Hilderbrand, and a large host of subcontractors – all of whom brought the project in on time and on budget – got such spirited applause when they were recognized under the tent for their work. Their work proved, said society director Trudy Coxe, that “you can put a beautiful building on a historical property without ruining it.” They sure did.
Posted below are photographs I took yesterday, except for one. The shot atop this post, which captures a telling angle I missed, is from NewportRI.com. Ditto the wide shot, from Newport Buzz, just before the last. At the end is a rendering by Epstein Joslin from 2013, after a design was chosen and before groundbreaking, delayed by opposition, led to completion in barely a year.