Five Questions With: Valerie Talmage

As executive director of Preserve Rhode Island, Valerie Talmage and colleagues have been working to find unique solutions for historic properties in East Providence, Smithfield and most recently in Lincoln, where the organization revitalized the state’s oldest home and listed the renovated Valentine Whitman House for sale at $539,000.

The “stone-ender,” known for an entire wall making up a stone chimney, was built in 1696. Talmage and her nonprofit organization are not only keeping history alive, but she said they’re contributing to the local economy by reactivating underutilized buildings, enlisting local contractors for renovations and making sure the state’s oldest real estate stays active for years to come.

PBN: As you delve into trying to sell properties that your organization has helped preserve, what are your observations about the market demand for some of Rhode Island’s oldest, historic homes?

TALMAGE: An active segment of the real estate market are people who look for architectural distinction, quality and unique character – and for them, historic buildings are in strong demand. As with any real estate investment, location and condition matter. Historic buildings offer some great selling points – they were built to last, with high-quality materials and craftsmanship showcasing authentic features. Many people love to live in places that have been dwellings for hundreds of years, enjoying the changes that generations of families have made to improve the property. For people seeking a special place, modern construction is often lacking, and they seek out historic buildings.

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PBN: What is your philosophy for historic preservation and saving endangered places when it comes to balancing efforts to maintain the original qualities of a home and also trying to make it attractive to modern-day buyers?

TALMAGE: At Preserve Rhode Island, we believe the best way to preserve a historic house is to match it with a good use. Some accuse preservationists as being “stuck in the past.” Our philosophy is to honor a building’s historic fabric, while striking a balance of 21st-century needs to successfully activate and preserve a historic place.

We balance preservation and modernization first by gaining a thorough understanding of the historic building, as it has changed over time. This understanding guides our rehabilitation projects where we employ two principles: retention of “historic fabric” and “reversibility.” The architectural features that can be retained are kept; deteriorated elements are replaced in kind; and new elements – like HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning], electrical and plumbing systems – are introduced with as little intrusion as possible, ensuring that modern elements can be removed without damage to the building.

Regarding decorative decisions like paint color, these are reversible changes that are a matter of personal taste. For Preserve RI, we embrace a contemporary palate that feels modern and bright.

PBN: You recently completed the rehabilitation of the Valentine Whitman House in Lincoln, investing $600,000 into the property and then selling it for less than that? How do the numbers work for your organization?

TALMAGE: As a nonprofit organization, our focus is on our mission to protect and activate historic places. At the Valentine Whitman House, Preserve RI will come close to covering our costs. There is often a mismatch to the needs of repairing and rehabilitating historic buildings and the real estate market – that’s why subsidies like tax credits and grants are available for some historic projects, putting them on a level playing field with new construction.

At the Valentine Whitman House, if cost were our only consideration, we could have chosen a rehabilitation that was cheaper, but it would not have been worthy of the landmark 17th-century building. Just one example: We chose to install a new cedar shake roof at triple the cost of an asphalt roof. The traditional wood roof was chosen as most appropriate to the historic character of the 320-year-old building. The wood roof is scheduled to last 50 years, which we believe will help protect the building for another generation, putting this former house museum that the town was unsure what to do with on a sustainable pathway.

We will hold a permanent preservation easement on the Valentine Whitman House, ensuring the building and site will be protected from demolition, development and inappropriate changes. We are grateful to many philanthropic funders who support our mission and allow us to make decisions that are best for the long run to take care of historic buildings.

PBN: What are other recent examples of properties your organization has saved?

TALMAGE: Preserve Rhode Island has a program we call Community Preservation Response for Rhode Island’s historic places. We help individuals, organizations and communities achieve their preservation goals by finding productive uses for old buildings and offering guidance to defend threatened places.

Two recent successes were in East Greenwich at the Old Kent County Jail – originally constructed in 1798 – and the Mary Mowry House, constructed in 1756, in Smithfield. In East Greenwich, the East Greenwich Historic Preservation Society approached us for ideas after they had lost their tenant and faced daunting operating costs and building repairs.

By first conveying a historic preservation easement to Preserve RI, the society could confidently sell the property to a private buyer who is planning a rehabilitation project. The easement secures the architectural integrity of the building in perpetuity.

At the Mary Mowry House, a collaborating nonprofit, Revive the Roots, completed a nine-year rehabilitation under our guidance. When the town decided to sell the property this year, we helped facilitate the transaction that allowed Revive the Roots to acquire the property as their headquarters, with Preserve RI holding a permanent preservation easement.

PBN: Why is this work important to the state and local communities, the culture of Rhode Island and the local economy?

TALMAGE: Historic preservation is not just saving old buildings and defending open spaces. Historic preservation creates positive change, making our diverse cultures, the environment and the economy better for the people who live, visit and work in Rhode Island.

Reusing historic buildings contributes to environmental sustainability and historic preservation means business, providing jobs, tax base, and vital main streets and downtowns. Examples of reuse of historic properties demonstrate that historic preservation contributes to solutions on far-reaching issues like affordable housing, climate change and equity.

Our 2018 economic impact study estimates that historic preservation contributes $1.4 billion annually to the tourism industry and that every dollar of state historic tax credits spurs over $10.50 in economic activity, making historic preservation a sound investment for Rhode Island.

Marc Larocque is a PBN contributing writer.