Time running out on Lincoln’s oldest home

Time running out on Lincoln’s oldest home

Dozens of residents gathered in the Town Hall council chambers on Monday, June 10, to hear from Preserve Rhode Island about the possibility of the organization taking over control of the historic Valentine Whitman House from the town. Pictured, Preserve R.I. executive director Valerie Talmage explains the history and mission of the nonprofit.
Preserve R.I. promises to set house "on its next 300 years"

LINCOLN – A Special Town Council Meeting drew dozens of residents to Lincoln Town Hall on Monday for a vigorous debate about the fate of the town’s oldest structures, one of only 10 or so historic stone-ender homes left in the state.

The conversation was centered on the Valentine Whitman Jr. House, built around 1694 and purchased by the town in 1991.

Nonprofit Preserve Rhode Island is seeking to take control of the home to rehabilitate it and either rent or sell it to recoup the costs of rehabilitation.

Those in favor of the arrangement recognize the need for repairs on the property and hope renovating and then occupying the home is a means to that end. Those against the partnership with Preserve R.I. are imploring the town to invest its own money for the necessary repairs and to retain ownership, maintaining the house as a museum as it is now.

Final say on whether or not to partner with Preserve R.I. goes to the Town Council, which has been working with the nonprofit’s executive director Valerie Talmage for months to explore various options for “setting the house on its next 300 years.”

According to Talmage, the roof is at the end of its life and there are moisture conditions in the basement. She said the home’s siding needs repair and a fresh coat of paint, windows need fixing, and “active” rodents and insects need to be addressed. Inside, she said plaster is falling, ceilings, floors and walls need attention, and the home’s electric, heating, plumbing and septic systems need upgrades. The home is not currently habitable.

The original hope of the nonprofit was to follow the model used on the Chase Farmhouse, which Preserve R.I. is leasing from the town for free for a 10-year term. The nonprofit rehabbed the home, which had sat vacant since the 1980s, into two residential units. Rents from those apartments will help recoup the cost of renovations, and at the end of the ten-year lease the town will have a usable asset.

Unfortunately, Talmage said, the numbers for that model won’t work at Valentine Whitman, where renovations are expected to cost twice as much as the Chase Farmhouse, or an estimated $400,000 to bring it to a livable state.

Two alternatives have been presented to the Town Council:

• The first would rehabilitate the property and sell it to a private buyer under a preservation easement. Talmage said these easements “have teeth,” giving the holder (in this case, Preserve R.I.) permission to monitor the property, visit at least annually with its owners, review and any all proposed changes to the home, and enforce the easement in court if necessary.

• The second option would bring in another nonprofit partner, called Landmark Trust USA, to manage a “historic vacation stay” with some public programming.

Landmark’s Susan McMahon said the question would be whether or not the model would work in Lincoln. A market analysis would be needed to determine just that, which would begin if and when the town expressed interest.

For the last 30-plus years, the house has been maintained as a museum, open to the public for programming by the Friends of the Valentine Whitman House group, led by Pat Choiniere. While the town owns the house, Choiniere and other volunteers have worked to raise funds to put into the property and to fill it with period treasures.

“Can we sustain as a historic house museum? Not without the town’s backing,” Choiniere said, slamming the town for its lack of financial support over the years. “We’ve gone to the town and the budget board to ask for A, B and C and we can’t even get past A.”

Talmage said the local dilemma is faced by historic house museums all across America that are struggling with deferred maintenance, aging boards and friends groups, and dwindling attendance.

Put simply, Choiniere said, “they are a money pit.”

“We put Band-Aids on everything we could fix,” she said of the volunteer group. “The town has to realize they had a responsibility to this house.”

Growing emotional, Choiniere said she resents the town for “putting this on the back burner for so many years.”

Asked by a resident why the home was never maintained, Town Administrator Joe Almond said Lincoln has invested $285,750 since the date of purchase in 1991.

“That’s the cost of trying to hold onto a historical property,” he said. “Repairs alone have cost $130,000.”

Almond said officials explored several funding options with the Budget Board over the years including retaining grants, but that Choiniere had “very little support” in doing so. Her group raised $8,000 in the last three years.

Almond said the town feels a lot of pressure in looking after its collection of historic properties, especially because there is no line-item in the budget for them.

Councilor Arthur Russo said he informally inquired about Historic New England acquiring the house, but that there wasn’t interest. When a member of the audience suggested that officials ask the Blackstone Valley Historical Society for help, a BVHS representative replied, “We have no money.”

So, what’s next for the home at the corner of Great Road and Whalen Drive?

Preserve R.I. has requested an answer from councilors by the end of June. Councilor Pamela Azar asked for more time to make a decision and explore the hard data.

While it is an option to continue with the current ownership model, Talmage said, “realistically, we’ve identified $400,000 in needed repairs. The town will have to put something of that range into the property, and then plan to provide ongoing programming to maintain it.”

At the end of the day, Choiniere said she reluctantly supports the town passing ownership of the home to Preserve R.I. because she believes the group will take care of it and fix what needs to be fixed, something she has tried to do for the last three decades.

“I feel better about Preserve R.I. owning the house because the town is not going to do anything and I’m sick of banging my head against the wall,” she said. “We just hear, the town has no money, the town has no money, over and over and over again.”

Lincoln resident Christine Maino said, “It’s going to cost $400,000 to rebuild this house and you have a company here willing to take this project on and help maintain the house in its integrity. If you don’t do this now, we are going to have that building falling down. With no funding plan, to lose Preserve R.I. taking on this project at this point would be a terrible disservice for the house.”

Resident Bonnie Taylor agreed, saying it would be great if the Budget Board had put money into the house, but that seeking any alternate route would add at least another year of degradation to the home.

“Do what’s right for the house and go with an agency with a good reputation to take care of the house,” she said.