Preserving Newport

The Elms Entrance
The Elms Entrance

The Preservation Society of Newport County, long the model for similar organizations around the country, marked a significant milestone this month when its longtime Board Chair, Donald O. Ross, passed the baton to his successor, Monty Burnham. Don had served on the board since 1989 and was named chair in 2010. During his tenure, the Preservation Society—which oversees such historic “cottages” in the Queen of Resorts as The Breakers, The Elms, Marble House, Rosecliff, Kingscote, and many others—grew its membership from 2500 to 35,000. In the last decade, annual attendance at the Newport mansions has grown to 960,000, quadruple the number in 1972. Visitors come from 40 states and 114 countries to inspect the Gilded Age digs of the Vanderbilts, Astors, Oelrichs, and Goelets. The annual budget is now $21 million, the endowment has swelled to $38 million, and the recently completed capital campaign, which started with a goal of $21 million, ended up raising $31 million.

Originally, the Preservation Society was an advocacy group that concentrated on preserving such colonial era Newport landmarks as The White Horse Tavern. But that emphasis changed in 1962, when The Elms was threatened by demolition in favor of an ugly new shopping center. Concerned citizens rallied to save it, and the Preservation Society added The Breakers, Rosecliff, Kingscote, and Marble House to its holding in the early 1970s. Today, it also owns Hunter House, Isaac Bell, Chepstow, Chateau-sur-Mer, and Green Animals, the beautiful Portsmouth topiary gardens and estate of the late Alice Brayton, a niece of the axe-wielding murderess Lizzie Borden over in Fall River. (Full disclosure: in the 1960s, your correspondent and other Priory incorrigibles would cross Cory’s Lane in the midnight hour, not to admire the magical topiary giraffes and elephants, but to help ourselves to the deliciously ripe tomatoes growing in Miss Brayton’s vegetable garden).

Phase one of the Preservation Society was advocacy for Colonial Newport. Phase two was preserving the historic Gilded Age piles when the economic and social situation of the 1970s threatened to turn them into extinct white elephants. In recent years, the Society has entered into a new period in which it is concentrating, not only on the houses, but on building the collections within them, and on increasingly sophisticated landscaping and education programs as well.

That, Ross says, is his proudest achievement—along with hiring talented new staff like Laurie Ossman as director of Museum Affairs and John Rodman, director of Museum Experience, to assist longtime head, Trudy Coxe. Ross also focused on professionalizing the Society’s Board so that the quality of governance has steadily improved with the addition of such trustees as former New York Times CEO Janet Robinson and former Goldman Sachs Asset Management Chief David Ford. Old line Newport remains well represented by such Quest readers as Bill Wood Prince, Duncan Chapman, Tim Berkowitz, Eaddo Kiernan, and Ala Isham. The result is that the Preservation Society is well positioned to move forward into new initiatives and has already done so in championing the burial of power lines behind Second Beach and advising the Navy where wind turbines might be best placed so as not to disrupt the magnificent sight lines in Newport Harbor and on Narragansett Bay.

Asked if he had any regrets (I was afraid he might say asking me to play in the member-guest at Bailey’s Beach one summer 25 years ago or so, when Don, a superb tennis player at Chapel Hill, could only carry me as far as the finals before we suffered an ignominious loss), Ross replied that he wished the effort to build a worthy welcome center at The Breakers had been finished on his watch, but, after a long legal battle, that ambitious project is now fully funded, and, if all goes well, should begin construction later this year.

Not a bad record, all in all, and one that augurs well for the future of the Newport we all love. Nice job, Don!