Armory Museum, Not House, Worth Investing In, Says Foundation

by | Nov 2, 2023

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.

Value the news you get here on East Greenwich News? As a 501-c3, we depend on reader support. Become a sustaining (monthly) donor or make a one-time donation! Click on the Donate button below or send a check to EG News, 18 Prospect St., East Greenwich, RI 02818. Thanks.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Raymond Riccio
Raymond Riccio
November 4, 2023 12:41 pm

The headstock had two handles on each side.
Kids from East Greenwich would each take ahold of handles and ring that bell boasting of the number of times they rang it, the time that passed as it sounded out or till they were eventually halted by a cop. The bell was located by the carriage house. 

“Muckle” games in the yard would instantaneously draw a crowd of kids from the neighborhoods starting at Kenyon Avenue to Duke Street, east of Main Street and beyond. No teams. Who ever had the football was to be tackled and striped of the ball unless passed off to a friend. We could have played at the Academy Field but no one seemed to mind the kids playing in what seemed at the time to be an enormous size yard, or one big enough to accommodate the bunch of kids playing “Muckle.”

Class trips from Elderage walking down Prospect Street
to Spring east to Pierce then onto the Varnum House. It was not only a relief from being in a classroom all day (Junior High) but allowed those who smoked a chance to distance himself from the teacher leading the group to pull out a pack of smokes and light one up. 

It was also a chance for some kids enamored by the antiquities inside the Varnum House to try and get away with stealing some of the artifacts laid in open view. “Ben Franklin glasses” and other relics from a bygone era. Not one kid thought the items would be missed. The only thing I can say was for respect of the historical value of the items and the number of my classmates stuffing things in their pockets I left well enough alone. It was within a half an hour after returning back to Elderage the guilty were called to Mr. Lepry’s office and were made to return the items. To this day, although as I said my hands were clean I never understood why I was never called (guilty by association) to the office as all those actually guilty were. Someone was watching and those caught were unaware. 

Is there a requiem as the town vastly changes into what many natives disprove of the many changes that have occurred throughout the town in the many years. Very possibly in the many memories. 

Donald Tunnicliff Rice
Donald Tunnicliff Rice
November 8, 2023 2:27 pm
Reply to  Raymond Riccio

In the early fifties, on the rare days when the Varnum House was open to the public, kids were allowed to wander around unsupervised. I never stole anything, but if I had done so it would have been the sword cane, which I greatly coveted.


Newsletter Sign Up

* indicates required


Latest Streaming