Rhode Island preservation group fires back at Vanderbilts in dispute over Breakers mansion

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — The group that owns The Breakers mansion in Newport has fired back at members of the Vanderbilt family, intensifying a dispute over the 70-room summer home sometimes referred to as America's Downton Abbey.

The Breakers was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II during the Gilded Age, when wealthy families from around the country built summer "cottages" in Newport. Completed in 1895, the mansion is now a National Historic Landmark and owned by the nonprofit group the Preservation Society of Newport County.

Earlier this month, 21 members of the Vanderbilt family signed a letter raising concerns about how the mansion is being managed, and raising particular objections to a plan to build a visitors' center on the grounds. Signatories, including designer Gloria Vanderbilt, said they won't donate money or family objects under "the current leadership climate."

Donald Ross, chairman of the preservation society, replied with a seven-page memo sent to those who signed the letter. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter from Mary Joan Hoene, an attorney who is representing some members of the family pro bono.

In it, Ross writes that in the past 20 years, only eight of the 21 people who signed the letter have "financially supported" the society's work, and that over the past five years, the signers have contributed only $4,000 total.

Ross also said most of the family members' items displayed at The Breakers are not very significant, and that only an estimated 7 percent of the objects in The Breakers are on loan from the family.

"Many of these objects are not in and of themselves irreplaceable or highly significant — some are as minor as hairbrushes or wastebaskets. They lend personality and authenticity to the spaces, but none are essential to the visitor experience," Ross wrote.

Ross also responded with an apparent threat of his own, noting that two people who signed the letter are allowed to live on the third floor of The Breakers, which is not open to the public.

"Their occupancy can be ended at any time," Ross wrote.

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