Visitors who walk the grounds at The Breakers mansion in Newport, R.I. are now experiencing the property more as the Vanderbilts did at the turn of the 20th century.
The 13 acres surrounding the iconic Gilded Age mansion, built as a summer “cottage” for the famous family in 1893, is undergoing a multi-million dollar restoration intended to bring the green spaces back to their former glory before they “were pretty much wiped out” during a 1938 hurricane, said Jim Donahue, curator of historic landscapes and architecture for the Preservation Society of Newport County, which is raising the more than $4 million to fund the project.
Cambridge-based Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architects is using historic records and photos to guide the design process of the grounds surrounding the 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, a National Historic Landmark, and restore the vision of original landscape architect, Brookline-born Ernest Bowditch. It is one of the last of Bowditch’s designs that has remained in tact, Donahue said.
“It’s important, I think, for landscape design history in the U.S. to bring this back,” he said.
The first phase of the project, completed in August, involved restoring half of what is known as the serpentine path, which encircles three sides of the property. The other half of the path will be restored in the spring. After that, there will be four more phases of the project, Donahue said, encompassing the canopy trees, north and south terraces, great lawn, and entrance drives. The order of the phases, after the path, have not yet been determined, he said.
“The serpentine path that survived was basically in tact in terms of the path itself, but all of the plantings along its perimeter to either side had been destroyed or degraded over time,” Donahue said.
Walking the path will feel different for visitors after the renovation, he said.
“Some areas were enclosed and really shady and other areas of it were open and very sunny,” Donahue said. “And as you walked along you’ve got all these different sightlines — contrived and controlled sightlines — of different focal points on the property. So, really, a goal of the whole path project is to put those sightlines back and to give back the original experience that was intended by Ernest Bowditch’s design.”
A donor garden was added to the path — the only new element in the master plan — with stone benches recognizing the donors who made the renovation possible, he said.
The entrance drives and pin oak allées, the most photographed views of the house, will become more formal when the project is complete, Donahue said. Restoration will include resetting curbs, improving drainage and irrigation, and planting new pin oaks along both drives. Potted trees will be added on either side of the driveway, as is seen in historic photos, he said.
The team has been very focused on the property’s trees, Donahue said.
“The tree canopy is a really important part of the whole renovation project,” Donahue said. “The biggest element of a late 19th century landscape really was the tree collection, the arboretum. And we know from news accounts and photographs taken after the hurricane of 1938 that at least 125 trees were lost at The Breakers landscape. That’s a lot of trees.”
Though not every tree will be replaced, the team will “put back clusters of trees in picturesque ways” to frame views of the house and coastline, he said.
“We do have some archival info of plant lists from 1914, which have been very helpful,” Donahue said. “We know which species were on site before the hurricane.”
For example, the team will add European beech and Turkish oak trees, he said.
The project will also include restoration of the north and south terraces.
“Those are the terraces that extend from the house, from the dining room on the north side of the house and the music room on the south side of the house,” Donahue said.
On the north side, where an annual flower garden currently resides, there used to be a rose garden, he said. The team hopes to restore it. On the south side, the doors to the ornate music room open onto a very formal Italian garden, which needs refreshing, he said.
“There was a very important interaction between the [music] room and the garden and they were meant to be seen as a whole,” Donahue said. “And so having that garden in shape and occasionally being able to open those doors will be an important upgrade.”
The famous great lawn, with its sweeping views of the Atlantic ocean, will see improvements as well.
“Over time, especially in the hurricane of ’38, half that lawn was washed away,” Donahue said. “It was repaired, but still the grading isn’t correct. So the lawn project is really about getting the grading beautifully done and upgrading the lawn and irrigating the lawn. It currently is not irrigated.”
When the restoration is complete, Donahue hopes visitors enjoy the landscape more as the Vanderbilts did.
“They lived in a summer house and they would have been in and out throughout the day,” Donahue said. “And we want to bring that sense back.”