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Preserving History Through the Built World

Exploring Architecture from the Colonial Era to the Gilded Age

Founded in 1945 and nestled in Newport, RI, the Preservation Society of Newport County protects and preserves the architectural heritage of the area from the Colonial era to the Gilded Age. The Society is the state’s largest cultural organization with 11 historic museums, properties and landscapes. In 1992, The Society purchased and extensively restored and renovated the Romanesque Revival mansion that is now its headquarters.

The Society serves its members and the public with a look into each property’s interiors, landscapes and social history. In fact, seven of its properties are National Historic Landmarks. Last July, the Society celebrated its 40 millionth tour, continuing its engagement with the public with the stories of the vibrant cultural heritage of the United States.

In addition to its in-person exhibitions and tours, the Society recently began offering 3D tours, so that the rich culture and history preserved within these spaces can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. We took some time with Jim Donahue, Curator of Historic Landscapes & Horticulture at The Society to learn more about the inspiration behind capturing these historic sites.

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Q: What inspired the 3D capture of these historic properties?

The answer to this question is multifaceted. For the exhibitions at Rosecliff, 3D capturing them enables the exhibitions to continue to “live on” after they’ve closed, as they generally only run for a few months. Our latest exhibition, “Becoming Vanderbilt,” debuted during the coronavirus outbreak, and the virtual exhibition is currently the only way for guests to experience it. 

An additional inspiration was the expansion of accessibility of the individual properties. By having a digital twin of a house, guests are able to explore in ways they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

Visitors to historic house museums usually follow a set tour route with rooms and areas roped off to protect the spaces and objects within. In the virtual tours, guests are able to explore the rooms freely, without ropes or stanchions to stop them. Being able to go “behind the ropes” and see rooms and objects up close can give guests a different perspective and greater appreciation for the spaces.

 

Q: What are the “must-sees” you want visitors to explore and why.  

The newest exhibition at Rosecliff, “Becoming Vanderbilt,” is a definite must-see. From Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt’s philanthropy to her daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s work as patron, artist and museum founder, to Alva Vanderbilt Belmont’s advocacy on behalf of women’s suffrage to her daughter Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s benevolence, the exhibition honors the legacy of these extraordinary women who are all connected to Newport. “Becoming Vanderbilt” draws upon holdings in the Preservation Society’s collections as well as key loans from other institutions and private collections.

The Elms virtual tour is another that is definitely worth checking out. Mattertags have been used to provide information about the paintings, objects, furniture, and tapestries throughout the house, giving further insight into the many pieces that come together to create an amazing house.  

Q: What’s the one thing you want visitors to take away after exploring these sites?

I think an important takeaway is that while these sites are now museums, they were once people’s homes, where they did and experienced many of the same things you and I do, albeit on a grander scale. When you look more closely, you start to see the personalities and interests of the previous owners reflected in each space.

Q: Exhibitions were closed due to the Coronavirus outbreak. How did you cope with the uncertainty? How can readers support organizations like the Preservation Society of Newport County during these unprecedented times?

The Preservation Society of Newport County approached 2020 with an ambitious plan to celebrate its 75th anniversary while also commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.  Instead, it has adjusted to an unexpected worldwide crisis by embracing new technology – including free access to our on-line 3D tours and weekly online Zoom lectures – while also raising the frequency of social media messaging with help from enthusiastic contributions from all of our departments. 

The re-opening campaign was highlighted by Project Relaunch, a fundraising initiative led by our CEO Trudy Coxe, that has kept the Preservation Society moving forward despite a significant loss in revenue caused by extended closures and a summer re-opening limited to just The Breakers and The Elms. Readers who would like to help can donate any amount by visiting our Project Relaunch page.

Last week, we also opened the popular Green Animals Topiary Garden as part of our new “Stroll the Gardens & Grounds,” outdoor-only package. For the first time, visitors will be allowed to picnic on the historic landscapes of The Breakers, The Elms and Green Animals Topiary Garden with a ticket that allows access to the grounds of all three properties for one price. This is another example of the Preservation Society leadership team thinking outside the box to address challenges posed by this pandemic. 

Recently, Trudy Coxe was interviewed as part of a wide-ranging story in TIME Magazine on the perilous state of museums in America. TIME made clear why that should be a concern, noting that aside from their educational, historic and artistic contributions to the culture, museums also “contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy, boast more than 726,000 jobs and generate $12 billion in tax revenue.” Public support has never been more crucial. 

For more information on The Preservation Society of Newport County, please visit https://www.newportmansions.org/.

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