RI Artscape- the battle over Queen Anne Square

PROVIDENCE,RI – Controversy has erupted in Newport over a proposed redesign of Queen Anne Square. The battle pits some local residents against famed architect Maya Lin. Rhode Island Public Radio's Megan Hall reports on a park that's dividing the city.

On a warm summer day in Newport, local officials and the press came together for an announcement- famed architect Maya Lin was redesigning a local park.

"This place needed a little help. Right now, it's all pathways, there's no place to sit. So we made it a real point where you can sit in outdoor rooms," she said.

Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Memorial, said her plans would make the patch of green space more inviting, a place for residents to sit down and meet each other. The redesign is funded entirely by private donations, collected by the Newport Restoration Foundation. The organization calls the design a gift, but not every resident sees it that way.

Andrew Segal lives in one of the restored historic homes surrounding Queen Anne Square. On a cold Friday afternoon, he stands in the center of the park, gesturing towards the portions that will change under Maya Lin's design.

"These gas lights, they're gonna rip em all out and put in stadium style lights," he says. "These mature trees are going to be removed, nine of them are going to be removed."

The park takes up a full city block in downtown Newport, starting at Thames Street and stretching up to the back yard of Trinity Church. It's a stretch of green grass dotted with bushes, trees, and a few boulders. Brick and stone walk ways criss-cross the lawn.

Maya Lin's design would remove some walkways, take out a dense patch of trees and bushes near the back of the park, and install three stone foundations. The structures will look like stone walls- creating rectangular shapes as tall as a chair and as big as a two car garage.

Segal is a member of a loosely affiliated group of residents opposed to Maya Lin's design. They've written dozens of letters to the local newspapers, criticizing the redesign and the public process for reviewing it. To them, this isn't just any park. Queen Anne Square holds particular emotional significance because of the woman who originally designed it.

Anne Joslin was a tour guide at Duke's mansion for a decade. She says back in the 1970's Queen Anne Square was just a city block packed with commercial buildings before Newport decided to overhaul the neighborhood. Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress, agreed to create a park if she had complete creative control.

"She created Queen Anne's Square as an artistic rendition of exactly what she wanted. She brought trees from her home in New Jersey, she brought boulders from her home in Newport, she laid it out as a village green. Everyone was delighted," she says.

Many of the residents opposed to the redesign say Maya Lin's stone foundations desecrate Doris Duke's vision. Why install three stone structures where she wanted a park full of grass? Andrew Segal says it doesn't make any sense.

"She took out those foundations and structures for a reason and she put in what she put in for a reason. It's sort of a slap in her face," he says.

Pieter Roos is the executive director of the Newport Restoration Foundation- the organization that owns and maintains Doris Duke's Newport properties. It's also the group that's organizing the redesign of Queen Anne Square. He says "It's interesting that we get all this perspective from folks on what Doris Duke would have wanted because we are the organization that she founded. We know Doris Duke pretty well and we wouldn't be doing this if we thought it was something she would hate."

Roos has been in close contact with Maya Lin as she works on the finishing touches of the design. He says the controversial stone foundations, which double as places to sit, reference Newport's history.

"Each one represents a building that was in the park. One of them is definitely 18th century. One of them is definitely 19th century, and one of them could be 17th century or it might be later."

Roos says the Newport Restoration Foundation started this project because it wanted to add some vitality to Doris Duke's park. He didn't expect the public outcry.

" We thought that we would see a little bit of push back, but we felt that people would really kind of feel this was a good thing," he says. "And a lot of people do think this is a nice thing. A lot of people have come up to me and said, hey, what's all the fuss about, I think this is a nice idea."

Whether the project is a good idea or not, it won't happen without approval from Newport's City Council. The Foundation is the caretaker for the properties Doris Duke bought and restored, but the park belongs to the city. Mayor Steve Waluk plans to vote in favor of the proposal. He says the Maya Lin redesign will improve the park.

"It will draw more people, it will have more families, it will have more places to sit down, which don't exist now," he says. "And maybe people will come to Newport and say, hey, Maya Lin, she's a big deal."

Waluk says the Newport residents opposed to the redesign need a little perspective.

"We have close to 10 % unemployment in Newport, people have holidays coming, they don't know how they're going to pay for gifts and things like that and out a turkey on the table for Thanksgiving," he says. "And these people are opposed to a three and a half million dollar donation to enhance a public park."

Anne Joslin, who's written eight letters to the editor in opposition to the park design, says residents are speaking from their hearts to protect a significant public space.

Mayor Waluck expects Newport's city council to approve the proposal at its meeting on December 14th. In the meantime, those who are against it are considering a lawsuit. They might even occupy the square.

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