Continentals split over plan to sell 250-year-old house
The head of the Varnum Continentals wants to sell the Varnum House, the historic home-turned-museum on Peirce Street adjacent to Town Hall that was once owned by a general who served under George Washington in the American Revolution. It now serves as an elementary school field trip locale.
“We don’t have the resources to responsibly operate and maintain two historic buildings and museums,” said Patrick Donovan, president of the Varnums. The other building is the Varnum Armory on Main Street, which they also own.
The decision has caused a rift in the 116-year-old nonprofit organization founded to foster respect for U.S. history and encourage patriotism.
The plan would be to sell the house and use the proceeds to create an endowment for the Varnum Armory Museum. While the museum has housed a military history museum for many decades, in recent years it has become a showcase for Rhode Island military artifacts from the Revolutionary War through to the “war on terror” following the 9/11 attacks.
For Donovan, creating an endowment and focusing efforts on the museum makes more sense than trying to hang on to both buildings and having neither the money nor the volunteer power (they are an all-volunteer organization) to do either well.
“The sale of one of the buildings would … immediately ensure the long-term survivability of the organization,” Donovan said in an interview. “I think the Armory has the best chance and the most appeal.”
He noted the prominence the museum has gained in the past few years, developing a textile and document conservation lab and collaborating with state and national entities, including the current collaboration with the R.I. State House to showcase the Gettysburg and Bull Run guns.
“I feel like the Armory has broader appeal versus a house museum,” said Donovan. He mentioned a recent article in Preserve R.I. that spoke of the challenge faced by house museums in 2023, with people not as interested in them as they once were, and the costs associated with keeping up an old house.
“There’s also much, much more value in the museum collection – historical and financially,” Donovan said. The museum, which occupies the basement of the Armory, was a mess 10 years ago, according to Donovan, who also serves as the museum’s executive director. “I’m forever scarred from my time when I first arrived,” he said, recounting how exhibits were moldy and full of moth larvae. “Artifacts were lost because of that neglect.”
The Armory itself was built in 1913. The main floor has been a rental venue over the years (including for an EG News event in Sept. 2022), and the entire building is open for touring a couple times a month. Private, paid tours are available on request.
The Varnum House was built in 1773 for James Mitchell Varnum, a young lawyer who then went on to serve as a general under Gen. George Washington in the Revolutionary War. According to the house website HERE, “As a prominent figure in the Revolutionary War and early-American politics, Varnum attracted a ‘who’s who’ of guests to his mansion including George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, Rochambeau, John Sullivan, Nathanael Greene, and many others.”
Varnum himself lived only 10 years past the war, dying at age 40 in 1789. The house remained a private residence until the Varnum Continentals bought it in 1939 and turned it into a museum. The property, right across the street from Town Hall, also has a large “yard” enclosed by high walls, creating a private oasis effect. In recent decades, the house has opened for field trips and house tours and the property is occasionally rented out for events.
Both the house and the Armory are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The idea of selling the house is anathema to Mark Trimmer, a life-long member of the Varnum Continentals whose grandfather – George Arthur White, Jr. – was one of the two men who founded the group after a rupture with the Kentish Guard.
“I’ve been involved since I was born. My mother stopped by the Varnum Armory on the way home from the hospital to show her new baby to my grandfather,” Trimmer said, noting that he played at the Armory and at the house as a kid. “It’s in my blood. It’s been part of my life for 63 years.”
Trimmer said he and Donovan worked side by side at the museum after Donovan joined the Varnums, putting in new flooring, and working on the electrical and plumbing. It had been a fruitful time and Trimmer welcomed Donovan’s enthusiasm.
Things changed a few years ago. Trimmer became ill and had to step back from duties for a while and then Covid hit. Trimmer said that was when Donovan began to make changes. Donovan doesn’t disagree.
“I started ringing the alarm bells about our long-term sustainability at the beginning of Covid,” Donovan said. “I felt like we had way too many assets and property for this little volunteer organization.”
He thought the Varnums should either merge with a larger, better-funded organization or “shrink our assets.”
Donovan and a couple of other members of the board of trustees did talk with one organization (he declined to name it) about a merger but that organization did not feel it had the bandwidth and the discussions ended. Which left shrinking.
In a letter posted on Facebook, Donovan outlined what he sees as all the challenges facing the Varnums if things stay as they are now, including capital needs at both buildings, such as new roofs, heating systems, and handicapped accessibility.
The Varnum Armory and the Varnum House have both been recipients of large Champlin Foundation grants over the years – $360,000 in the last five years alone. The Rhode Island-based foundation provides “bricks and mortar” grants for historic buildings. But Donovan said depending on Champlin to keep funding them was unwise.
Trimmer, alternatively, said Donovan was painting too bleak a picture about the work that needs to get done, the lack of volunteers, and the overall financial picture.
He and others have organized a new group, Friends of the Varnum House Museum, “to preserve, promote, and maintain the Varnum House Museum … as [a] publicly accessible, non-profit history museum under the Varnum Continentals organization.” They have also collected letters from a variety of supporters, including former Gov. Don Carcieri (RI Governor Don Carcieri – Support Letter), Varnum Continentals past president Chris Feisthamel (Chris Feisthamel – Support Letter), and commander of the Kentish Guard Theo Aschman (Theo Aschman – Support Letter).
Trimmer’s worry is the house would be sold, gutted and rebuilt by private interests.
Donovan said the house can be protected through a historical easement (the EG Historic Preservation Society had such an easement in place when they sold the Old Jail on Water Street to a private developer looking to open up a boutique hotel – read more HERE).
“I think the best way to restore the house is through a well-crafted historical easement,” said Donovan. He said such an easement could be tailored to protect everything that is historically relevant at the property. Trimmer, for his part, does not think such an easement would be strong enough to protect the property as the Varnum Continentals have done these past 84 years and that clashes with what he feels is the duty of their organization.
“To me, we are merely stewards of this historical house and its contents,” he said.
What will happen now?
At this point, Donovan said, he is not going to call for a vote on the sale of the house despite his strong feeling that’s the right thing to do.
“I think a split either formally or operationally is our best path forward,” he said, referring to the Varnum House Museum as a separate entity. “But their side would need to agree to it.”
Donavan added, “A lot of people are very passionate about who we are and what we have as an organization. But you still have to look at this as a modern business. As president, it is my duty to look ahead and tend to the long-term viability of our small, all-volunteer organization.”
Editor’s note: It happens both the armory and the house will be open this weekend for tours. The Varnum House Museum will be open for tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday; there will also be cannon drills Sunday on the grounds. The Varnum Armory Memorial Museum will be open Sunday for tours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Find out more about both HERE.
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