Future of Valentine Whitman House set to be decided

Future of Valentine Whitman House set to be decided

The future of the historic Valentine Whitman Jr. House on Great Road in Lincoln will likely be decided at this month’s Town Council meeting. The property has been owned by the town of Lincoln since 1991. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)

LINCOLN – The future of one of the oldest surviving buildings in the state will likely be decided by the Lincoln Town Council this month when the nonprofit Preserve Rhode Island is expected to present potential plans for consideration by leaders.

The town-owned house at the center of the discussion is the circa-1694 “stone ender” on Great Road known as the Valentine Whitman Jr. House. The home, whose stone chimney covers an entire exterior wall, is the second oldest home in Lincoln and the site of the first town meeting of Smithfield before Lincoln was established as a separate community.

This month, Preserve R.I. is expected to offer two potential project proposals to town councilors regarding the future of the property. Town Planner Al Ranaldi said the nonprofit became familiar with the property when the two parties entered a lease agreement for the Chase Farmhouse.

“We showed them other properties in town and they fell in love with the Valentine Whitman House,” he said, adding that town officials expressed their inability to properly maintain the house due to lack of funding. “When things come to a point we’ll allocate funds, but a house that age needs a lot of regular attention. We started talking to them about coming up with a long-term solution.”

Ranaldi said the first option would be for the town to turn over ownership of the home to Preserve R.I., which would invest $350,000 or more to turn the historic house museum into a single-family home with a kitchen, functional bathrooms and modern utilities. The property would then be rented or sold under a preservation easement that would restrict future owners from making any changes to the historic home.

Though the town previously considered retaining ownership of the property as it did with the Chase Farmhouse project, Ranaldi said that option is not financially viable. To retain ownership, the town would have to pay a share of $150,000 for the upgrades, which Ranaldi said could pay for much-needed public works trucks or police vehicles.

The second option would turn the home into a “historic Airbnb,” in Ranaldi’s words, by teaming with a group of preservationists at The Landmark Trust U.S.A. That group would lease the property from Preserve R.I., preserve it and rent it out to the public as a historic experience.

“One of the things that’s attractive in this model is that when there’s no one in the house we could still have the public come into the house,” Ranaldi said. The property is currently open to the public upon request and during events.

Pat Choiniere, who has been taking care of the property for more than 30 years, said she’s not excited over the town’s decision to abandon ownership. She said the property was stripped empty when she first became caretaker, except for two looms that were too large to remove from the home.

“We brought in our own items to show, and opened it annually to the public,” she said.

She said she’s more supportive of the second option of turning the historic house into a short-term vacation rental because the house would remain open to the public.

The history of the home, she said, should not be forgotten. “We should know where we came from.”

Choiniere said the Valentine Whitman House serves as a reminder of the past, teaching people about the ways our ancestors survived despite harsh conditions.

“In the middle of winter, when the snow was two feet deep, they couldn’t run to Walmart down the street for supplies,” she said.

“People don’t realize how tough it was just to survive a winter in 1694,” she added. “It’s such a shame that the kids in town especially won’t have the opportunity to learn about this history.”

Ideally, she’d like to see the property remain a museum house.

“Having people stay as a destination is not bad. To close it off completely to the public, no. These houses are few and far between. You are not going to see a stone-ender in California,” she said. “And once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Ranaldi said, “We know the historic value of the home but we have to look at the other needs of the town. On the one hand, how can you ignore a house like this? On the other hand, how can you responsibly fund it? Our desire is to preserve the house. How we get there is an active negotiation at this point.”

Needed repairs on the house go beyond “paint and putty,” Ranaldi said. On the exterior alone, he said fixes need to be made to the windows and sills, roof and eaves, “… and that’s only the stuff we know about.”

While acknowledging the amount of dedication and work Choiniere and the Friends of the Valentine Whitman House have put in over the years, Ranaldi said the partnership with Preserve R.I. is the best way to ensure that the house is properly maintained and preserved for the long-term.

“Preserve R.I. has worked a tremendous amount of hours to come up with these concepts. They bring in historic architects and contractors whose specialty is historic homes,” he said. “Ultimately what it comes down to is what the Town Council feels is more appropriate, but it’s non-negotiable that the house has to be preserved.”

Comments

Neither of these options makes sense for a beautiful, historical home in our town. There are many other historical homes in Lincoln that remain preserved and open to the public such as the Arnold House, Hearthside, Quaker Meeting House to name a few. Some are owned by the town, others like the Quaker Meeting House are in use, but open to the public periodically. Why not seek out other preservation societies such as https://www.historicnewengland.org/property/arnold-house/ which owns and keeps open to the public the Arnold House. Turning a home like this into a vacation rental seems like an irresponsible option.

I agree with Patricia M. that these are bad options. The initial cost for repairs should be put in front of the taxpayers, and with with regular annual (budgeted) maintenance we could keep this treasure in good condition. It is in the town's best interest to maintain this buildings and others, especially those along Great Road.