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Johnson’s historical house is in good hands, preservationists say

June 18, 2013

Joseph Spaulding House at 30 Fruit St.

PAWTUCKET — Elizabeth “Betty” Johnson's rich legacy, from her vast collection of historical documents to her 19th century homestead and its contents, are in good hands, according to local preservationists. As such, the non-profit organization that she created to oversee her property is planning to disband.
The Elizabeth J. Johnson Pawtucket History Research Center (PHRC) has been leasing space in the Pawtucket Public Library to house the collection of historical material that Johnson gathered over her lifetime. Until several months ago, the collection was kept in Johnson's family home, the Joseph Spaulding House, an 1828 federal style house at 30 Fruit Street.
Realizing that the city library would be a better caretaker to the collection, the PHRC spent its own funds to renovate leased space in the library for a new and more accessible research area. The board of the PHRC now wants to deed the collection fully to the library, and the trustees of the library have agreed to accept what they call a “generous gift.”
The board of the PHRC has also transferred ownership of Betty Johnson's former home, the Spaulding House, and its period contents, to the Preservation Society of Pawtucket. With both the house and the collection under the watch of new and capable caretakers, the PHRC can now go “out of business” at the end of the year, explains PHRC President Dennis Stark. The request for the City Council to terminate its lease with the library is simply a housekeeping matter.
However, as Stark is quick to point out, there is no reason for sadness over the disbanding of the PHRC. The individuals involved with both Johnson's historical collection and her lovingly tendered house and furnishings feel that solid decisions have been made on her behalf that are in accordance with her wishes.
Stark noted that Johnson, who died in 2010, left her collection, house and belongings to the city. Her dream was that the property, housing the collection, would go on in perpetuity as a research center and an example of 19th century architecture in the city. However, Johnson's estate was whittled down by the cost of her care in her later years, when she had to leave the Fruit Street house where she had spent her entire life to reside in Weeden Manor and later Steere House. All that was left of her money, intended to keep the house operating, was about $17,000, Stark said.
Stark said that the cost of operating the house averaged about $20,000 a year. This was not counting paying for employees to staff the research center. It eventually became clear to the PHRC board that a new plan was needed.
Among the many artifacts in Johnson's collection were the diaries of Daniel Jenks. A Pawtucket native, Jenks had left home in 1849 to make his way in the California and Colorado gold rushes and had kept a written account of his experiences. Since these diaries centered more on the west than Pawtucket, the board decided they could be sold. At the famed auction house, Christie's, the Jenks diaries fetched $150,000 last December, said Stark.
With this infusion of cash, the PHRC board set aside $36,000 to put towards the renovation of an area in the Pawtucket Library to hold the collection. The PHRC also contributed another $24,000 towards the library project from other funding sources. The Preservation Society of Pawtucket, of which Stark is also first vice president of, was given $36,000 toward the operation of the Spaulding House.
Once the PHRC closes out its books at the end of this year, the organization will leave any remaining funds as endowments for both the collection and the Spaulding House, Stark said.
One key action that the Preservation Society did was hire a consultant to develop a strategic plan to keep the Spaulding House operating. The group chose Janet Zwolinski, who had done consulting work for the Hearthside House in Lincoln, to prepare a report. “We're hopeful we can identify strategies that will keep the house going,” Stark said.
Stark said the Spaulding House is now open only on an “as needed basis.” Under the deed, it must be open it to the public a minimum of five times a year, he said.
Some fundraising ideas have included holding an annual “garden party” at the house in honor of Johnson's birthday. While that date is April 1, Stark said such an event would likely be held in June or July, when the house's landscaped gardens look their best.
Another idea is to hold a “tea” at Spaulding House during Christmastime. “Betty was famous for her Christmas decorating when she lived in the house, and the decorations are all still there,” said Stark. He said the house could be part of a holiday tour that also would include the Sylvanus Brown House at Slater Mill and the Daggett House in Slater Park.
Stark noted that the Spaulding House is currently the only private residence in the city that is on the National Register of Historic Places. This designation makes it eligible for grant money for certain projects involved in the upkeep. However, he noted, “It can be easier to raise money to paint it than to replace a light bulb.”
Stark noted that some other strategies involve the possibility of moving the Preservation Society's offices from the Baker Hanley House, another historic city property the group owns, into the Spaulding House, and renting out the other property. There could also be room for another tenant in the Spaulding House without endangering the property's tax exempt status, he said.
Stark said that he and the other PHRC board members, George Peters and Lew Miller, believe that Betty's beloved collection is in “strong hands at the library” and that the 30-year-old Preservation Society will maintain her house. “It was time for us to pass the mantle and I think we've done that imaginatively,” said Stark.


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