by Kaity Ryan, Deputy Chief of Staff of The Preservation Society of Newport County.
The Preservation Society of Newport County (“PSNC”) is most known for its collection of architectural landmarks known as the Newport Mansions. Of equal significance are the 88 acres of gardens, parkland, and an arboretum that comprise the organization’s landscape collection. Over the past 10 years, the Preservation Society has renewed its commitment to landscape preservation and elevating public discourse about landscape history.
The majority of the PSNC’s landscapes were designed during the Gilded Age for affluent patrons for whom maintenance costs were no obstacle, in contrast to the present-day constraints of a not-for-profit steward. Today, a team of horticulturists, arborists, and gardeners tend to the 11 historic properties in the Preservation Society’s care. The PSNC’s Gardens and Landscapes department operates several greenhouses in which it cultivates trees, plants and flowers that are used in the houses and grounds. The team also addresses the ongoing needs and challenges of the variety of landscapes in the collection.
One such challenge is succession planning, which presents a unique obstacle given that much of the collection contains non-native specimen trees that, in addition to the ever-present threats of climate conditions and disease, are nearing the end of their natural lifespan. Anticipating the need to replace the rare specimen trees that characterize properties like Chateau-sur-Mer and The Breakers – as well as the larger Newport tree canopy – the Preservation Society has established nurseries for cultivating replacements. The Breakers Greenhouse is home to a variety of species, including rare Turkish Oaks grown from acorns taken from the trees at Chateau-sur-Mer. In 2016, the Preservation Society created a beech nursery at Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, where replacement trees are being cultivated in preparation for transplanting in the coming years.
In addition to the 30+ people who make up the organization’s horticultural team, the Preservation Society is committed to hiring local contractors whose knowledge and experience are critical to the success of our landscape efforts. None of this work could be carried out without the contributions of volunteers who dedicate time, expertise, and enthusiasm to helping the organization carry out its mission.
Recognizing the need for a curatorial vision to guide landscape stewardship and interpretation, long-time Green Animals Topiary Garden director Jim Donahue was promoted to the role of Curator of Historic Landscapes and Gardens in 2014. In this capacity, Donahue draws on his horticultural background and design experience along with historical research and scholarship to devise creative ways to engage visitors in the Preservation Society’s properties. In 2015, Donahue spearheaded the accreditation of the Newport Mansions Arboretum, which was recognized by the Morton Register as a Level II arboretum. In addition to interpretive efforts like the restoration of the rose garden at Rosecliff (currently underway), Donahue helps guide public education through programming such as the 2017-18 lecture series highlighting the evolution of The Breakers landscape along with an adult education series that is being offered this spring.
Integral to these interpretive efforts is the generosity of supporters like the van Beuren Charitable Foundation (vBCF). In 2017, vBCF awarded the Preservation Society a grant of one million dollars which provided transformational funding for The Breakers landscape. For the first time in over a century, the original design, conceived by noted landscape architect and engineer Ernest W. Bowditch, will be reestablished so that the property reflects the original design intent. This gift will enable the Preservation Society to implement site improvements and design recommendations informed by a master plan by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand (Cambridge, MA) and a cultural landscape report (CLR) by consulting historian Judith Robinson and Associates (Washington D.C.). Together these resources provide a blueprint that will guide landscape treatment moving forward.
The master plan presents an opportunity to rehabilitate and restore elements of Bowditch’s design that will activate the landscape and unify the entire site as a cohesive experience. The master plan outlines site improvements based on eight “character zones” or designated project areas to lend a phased approach to the 13-acre property over time. With a total cost of over $4 million, the Preservation Society has raised $1.1 million and continues to seek funding that will enable us to execute the entire plan. The first phase of implementation is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2018.
The CLR formed the basis for Reed Hilderbrand’s design recommendations and it is a critical tool for the future stewardship of The Breakers as it provides a comprehensive history of the landscape that will guide treatment and interpretation for years to come. The report can be found on the Preservation Society’s website and all are encouraged to read it.
Beyond its own gates, the Preservation Society has forged public-private partnerships that support landscape preservation in the local community. In 2015 the Preservation Society partnered with The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), the pioneering national organization dedicated to landscape preservation and advocacy. Together the two not-for-profits organized a free, weekend-long program called “What’s Out There Weekend: Newport County” in which local experts (including many ASLA members and affiliates) led free tours and guided walks of 28 landscapes throughout Newport County. With support from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, Bartlett Tree Experts, and others, TCLF and PSNC published an accompanying guidebook which remains available to the public through the TCLF website.
Another public-private collaboration involved the Preservation Society together with the Aquidneck Land Trust, Preserve Rhode Island, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Brought together by a shared focus on preserving and enhancing the visual quality of Aquidneck Island’s historic and natural places, this group dedicated more than five years to building support and raising $1.2 million to restore one of Rhode Island’s most significant scenic resources: the coastline of historic Paradise Valley, more commonly known as Second Beach or Sachuest. The partners worked with the Town of Middletown and National Grid to bury the utility lines and eliminate the utility poles adjacent to Second Beach in Middletown. This project not only restored the historic views that inspired artists like John LaFarge and George Bellows to paint the landscape, it also increased coastal resiliency, enhanced pedestrian safety, and improved utility infrastructure for the cyclists, surfers, beach-goers, birdwatchers, and others that visit Second Beach, the Norman Bird Sanctuary, Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, St. George’s School, Purgatory Chasm, and other nearby sites.
Collectively these internal and external initiatives represent an important chapter in the Preservation Society’s stewardship and interpretation efforts. Beyond the value of contributing new scholarship, elevating awareness of Newport County’s landscape legacy and design history, and increasing engagement, these efforts support the breadth and depth of talented designers, contractors, horticulturists and scholars in and around Rhode Island. As we welcome all the harbingers of spring, the Preservation Society welcomes the next chapter in landscape stewardship and looks forward to the growth it will bring for our organization and the broader community we serve.