Philanthropist donates $500,000 toward creating garden terrace at Opera House

(Newport Daily News, By Sean Flynn)

Ronald Lee Fleming, a well-known philanthropist in the city, has donated $500,000 toward creating a garden terrace on a planned fourth floor of the Newport Opera House Theater and Performing Arts Center now under construction at Washington Square.

“It will be the culmination of a series of smaller projects I have been involved with over the years in this city,” Fleming said Monday.

As a strong advocate for the preservation of community character, he wants the residents here and beyond to have a “strong cultural connection to the Opera House.”

Constructed in 1867, the Opera House Theater is among the 10 oldest surviving opera houses in the country and is the oldest surviving theater building in this state.

On Dec. 28, 2017, there will be an opening 150th anniversary celebration in the restored and rebuilt Opera House, said Liz Drayton, a former board member now helping with patron relations.

“We’ll be open with a full schedule of performances in the late spring or early summer of 2018,” she said.

With the emergence of movies in the 1920s, the Opera House entered a new era as a movie theater, which closed in 2010. A fire that began on Thames Street in November 1955 damaged the adjacent Perry House hotel and the fourth floor of the Opera House. The hotel was demolished in 1957 as a result of the fire, and the the top floor of the Opera House removed.

Large vertical steel beams will be inserted into the building in the coming week that will allow the top floor to be restored, but not with rooms. Instead, there will be a glassed-in pavilion, also referred to as an atrium, a rooftop terrace and landscaped gardens.

Fleming has created striking gardens on the property of his Bellevue House and will assist with the creation of the gardens in addition to his financial donation.

The Opera House board will host a reception to honor Fleming for this donation, previous donations and for his many “contributions to the historic and cultural landscape of Newport.” The reception, called “Beyond the Velvet Rope,” will be held in the Clarke Cooke House SkyBar on Banisters Wharf on Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. This is a fundraiser and there is a $250 ticket cost, with all proceeds going toward the ongoing capital campaign for the Opera House, Drayton said.

Among the guests will be Tony Award nominee Robert Fairchild and his wife, Tiler Peck, both principal dancers of the New York City Ballet. Fairchild is best known recently for his starring role in “An American in Paris” on Broadway. Most recently, Peck played the title role in the “Little Dancer” musical at the Kennedy Center.

Renowned violin soloist Gil Morgenstern will perform a special piece in honor of Fleming. He is artistic director of Reflections Series International in New York City, where he creates original programs combining music, dance, visual art, poetry and prose.

Tickets can be purchased through the Opera House theater office at 619-4599.

Fleming is the largest private donor to the Opera House campaign, and one of the goals of this event and upcoming appeals is to encourage more private donors to come forward, Drayton said.

“I will challenge my friends to step up to the plate,” Fleming said. “If there is a timeframe for these donations, I may be persuaded into donating a little more.”

There are other naming opportunities for donors, besides what will be the Fleming Family Roof Garden. For example, the rooftop atrium can be named for another $500,000 donation; the main entrance lobby named for $250,000; or the theater’s grand stairway for $100,000. Naming rights to a third floor hallway and gallery can be secured for $25,000 and there are many other opportunities on the published list.

This is a $15 million project and 70 percent of the funding has been raised so far, including a $4.2 million grant from a state cultural bond approved by the voters in 2014, Drayton said.

The center with its 700 seats is expected to be a engine for economic development. During construction, it will support 181 jobs with an annual payroll of $5.1 million, according to the center’s business model. In the first year of operations, the total economic output is estimated at $1.6 million and the center will support 54 full-time and part-time jobs with an annual payroll of $367,359.

Fleming hosted the initial gathering to kick off the Opera House Cornerstone Campaign in 2007 at Bellevue House, when he introduced the theater restoration project to potential donors and supporters in the community.

His efforts in the community often attract attention.

Over the years, Fleming funded and edited research for the historic markers along Bellevue Avenue and funded the historic markers along Cliff Walk.

He provided seed and sustaining funding for the “golden necklace” of daffodils planted along the city’s entryways and major corridors. More than 670,000 daffodils have been planted so far.

“I give John Hirschboeck credit for the initiative’s success,” Fleming said. “He took it and put it on steroids.”

Fleming’s philanthropy list is long: He gave the lead gift for the Newport Historic Spring Project now underway; conceived and created the Winslow parklet on the traffic island at Coggeshall and Ocean avenues; and contributed to tree plantings in the city, among many other efforts.

He is currently building a library in the Bellevue House gardens featuring publications about urban design, garden history, community development and histories of cities and towns.

Fleming has a home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is also the location of the Townscape Institute that he founded.

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