‘I’ve Driven Past This Building for YEARS and Never Knew!’

by | Jan 27, 2021

Above: Textile conservator Maria Vazquez is forced to climb onto the Armory’s conservation lab table to safely unfurl a super fragile silk American flag from the 1870s with the help of Varnum volunteer Andy Santilli as RI PBS films the tense scene for an upcoming documentary. 

If I had a dollar – as the saying goes – for every time I heard a visitor at the Varnum Armory Museum say that, I’d be rich. Well, not super rich maybe, but you get my point. Located at 6 Main Street, the red-brick, medieval-style building has been a fixture of downtown East Greenwich since 1914 when its doors first opened. For decades it was THE place to be for local socialites and patriotic people “on the move” who wanted to socialize and celebrate our veterans. During these times, Armory space was leased to house units of the Rhode Island National Guard from 1918 all the way through to 1994. It was one of only a few privately-owned armories in the country to act in this capacity. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984, the Armory today, however, is a bit of a mystery for the many who drive past the building and look and wonder, “What the heck is that place?” 

A parade down Main Street, with the Varnum Continentals.

The armory was financed and built by the Varnum Continentals, a state-chartered, historic military command. The organization, when it first formed in 1907, adopted the name of local EG resident, James Mitchell Varnum, who was a lawyer, two-term member of the Continental Congress, first leader of the East Greenwich Kentish Guards militia, and a general in George Washington’s Continental Army, among many other things. The Varnum Continentals’ military command still serves today as a symbolic reminder of Rhode Island’s citizen volunteer militia tradition. Their aim is to educate and promote patriotism through their participation in parades, government events, funerals, and other historical-themed activities.  

But, today, the Varnum Continentals organization represents and does SO much more than that. We have really evolved and grown with the times becoming much more akin to being a professional historic preservation organization. We are incorporated as an all-volunteer, charitable nonprofit organization. Our stated mission today is to preserve and share Rhode Island’s military history and heritage. The goal of that mission is to educate and encourage service – service of ALL kinds – to our local communities, state, and country. We do this primarily by operating two museum properties: the James Mitchell Varnum House estate located on Peirce Street and the Varnum Armory Museum which houses the largest collection of Rhode Island military history spanning from Colonial America on through to the present day. Because we’re all volunteer, we tend to be open by appointment only (book through our website). But our goal is to eventually get the museum and our docent program to the point where we can start being open on a more regular basis.  

Museum director Patrick Donovan and textile conservator Maria Vazquez with three completed client conservation projects: (L to R) a Civil War Confederate Artillery General’s frock coat; a Civil War enlisted man’s frock and trousers worn at the Battle of Chancellorsville; and a Civil War Union soldier’s greatcoat.

Also, as a part of the Armory Museum, I’m very proud to report we now have an actual conservation lab onsite where professional textile, object, and document conservators actively work to preserve not only our own vast collection of artifacts, but also important historical items from other local institutions and outside clients that are in danger of being lost due to deterioration. Maria Vazquez who has a master’s degree in textile conservation from URI runs the lab for us. We are currently working on some amazing and historically important objects that are of national significance. We’ll share details on some of that in future “Adventures at the Armory” posts. As you’ll soon read, it’s through our new lab that we are truly and quite literally living up to our mission of preserving RI military history. 

So, this post was intended to give EG News readers a brief introduction to what the Varnum Armory is and what we do. In subsequent posts, I’ll be sharing some of the epic and often emotional stories behind many of the treasures in our museum. I’ll tell you about some of our more adventurous escapades in discovering hidden treasures and the sometimes bizarre, unbelievable coincidences and synchronicities that have occurred as we’ve been doing our best as volunteers to save and preserve our local history. My hope is that you’ll come away from reading this column with a new appreciation for Rhode Island history and particularly for the sacrifice and selflessness of the men and women of Rhode Island who answered the call to serve.

Patrick Donovan lives with his wife, Anne, in the Hill District of East Greenwich. He is the director of the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum where he is responsible for the care of the museum collection, the conservation lab, and facility. He works as a project manager and senior research analyst for Schneider Electric’s Energy Management Research Center.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Doug Truesdell

    It’s an unbelievable treasure, right here in East Greenwich. Thanks to Patrick and all of the volunteers for not only keeping things going, but for also putting measures in place to make it available for future generations.

    Reply
    • Patrick Donovan

      Thank you! Its an honor to care for these historical treasures.

      Reply

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