Varnum president continues push for sale of house property even as house supporters spur to action
Varnum Continentals’ President Patrick Donovan is continuing his quest to either sell the Varnum House or divest it from the organization to provide greater support to the Varnum Armory Museum. On Monday, Donovan shared an email from the grant manager for the Champlin Foundation in which she expressed the foundation’s continued support for the Armory Museum and said Champlin was “unlikely” to invest in other Varnum properties “at this time.”
“This letter strengthens my belief that we need to divest ourselves of the House property; either through a sale (with permanent, legally-binding easement to preserve yard and exterior) or a split of the organization,” he wrote in the email that went to Varnum membership. “I will continue to work towards this end.”
Donovan said he had sought clarification from Champlin about future support after some Varnum members suggested the foundation – a major funder of nonprofit bricks-and-mortar projects in the state – would stop funding the Varnums altogether if the organization sold a property it had funded over the years. Champlin has funded projects at both the house and the armory to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years.
The letter from Champlin appears to put that particular argument to rest, with Heather Fraser, Champlin grants manager, writing:
What I can say with confidence is that The Champlin Foundation’s primary interest remains in supporting the Armory Museum and its efforts to develop programming that will benefit the public. It is unlikely we would direct funding to your other properties at this time.
The Varnum Continentals own three properties: the 250-year-old house built by Gen. James Varnum at 57 Peirce St., the Varnum Armory built in 1911* (which includes the military history museum in the basement), and a garage behind the armory building on the southeast corner of Division and Marlborough streets. Donovan has argued caring for two historic properties was too much for the all-volunteer organization. If the membership votes to sell the house, Donovan said he wants to use the proceeds to establish an endowment for the armory.
Donovan’s desire to offload the house museum has catalyzed a group of supporters of the house to save it. For Joanne Breslin, newly elected vice president of the Varnum House, it makes much more sense to sell the garage property.
“I can definitely see a couple ways forward,” she said earlier this week. “It’s going to take compromises with both sides. We do own the garage on Marlborough Street. [Sale of] that could really form a basis for a solid endowment that would involve no historic properties. That has to be the start of it.”
Breslin added the Varnums have not had a development program or major fundraising effort in at least 20 years. “We’ve had no consistent program. I think between the two properties, we could work together to get to where we need to be financially.”
She said the house was self-sustaining, with two paying renters – someone renting an apartment at the back of the house and someone renting the old carriage house.
“It’s an old house; it does need constant care,” she said. “But it’s in good shape.”
Breslin said she was stunned when she first heard Donovan’s idea to sell the house.
“I think my mouth dropped open.”
For a moment, it made her question her involvement in the Varnum Continentals – Breslin’s been a member for 20 years, the past 9+ years as colonel of the militia.
“Do I want to be a part of this organization that is literally selling history? Damn right I do. I really had a realization of how much both this town and its history meant to me that I hadn’t realized before. With the house, it just hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Breslin said she’d been meeting with lots of different people in recent weeks (she was voted in as VP of the house just two weeks ago). “The outpouring of profession help from the community has been great,” she said, noting she’d also been working with Alison Carcieri-Cassidy, executive director of the Academy Science Center, on a partnership of the two adjacent properties.
Breslin said members are looking to add educational components while keeping it fun for the community. Having regular events and times the house is open is a first step. For many years, the house was only open to the public occasionally. “We will be formalizing agreements and initial programming,” she said.
Regarding the Champlin Foundation saying it would not be looking to fund the house at present, Breslin said she understood and the house supporters “are working to bring about the necessary changes.”
“We realize we have to take a hard look at the house museum model under which we were operating, and had served us very well for a long time. Times change, and an organization needs to change with them to stay relevant,” she said. “That’s my goal, to ensure that the House and its programming are relevant and serve our community.”
Editor’s note: We had the wrong date for the building of the Varnum Armory. It has been corrected; we regret the error.