SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Art and Historical Society is down to its last $1,000 and is investigating selling its landmark home, the Miller Art Center.
Jim Chlebak, the newly elected president of the art and historical society, said that no absolute decision had been made to sell the 1866 building, which was given to the town for an arts center in 1955 by Grace and Edward “Ted” Miller, then the president of Fellows Gear Shaper.
The Miller Art Center overlooks downtown Springfield from its position on Elm Hill, with its pillars and imposing facade lit at night.
Chlebak, a music teacher at Springfield High School, said for the past two winters the building has been closed to save heating costs. He said it cost about $1,000 every three weeks for oil to heat the large building, which houses several art galleries, and display space. Paid membership is down to about 50 people, he said, although he said there were 300 people on the arts center’s mailing list.
Chlebak said the art and historical society had researched the deed of the building, and the organization had the clear authority to sell the building, rather than either have it revert to the town or to the Miller family.
He said he had talked with members of the Miller family, including two who live in the area, and they were understanding of the society’s dilemma, he said.
He said the group had talked with a real estate agent, but hadn’t yet voted on selling or listing the building.
But he said it was obvious something needed to be done to find a new home for the organization’s collections of historical documents and art, and protect the collections, which include not just paintings but artifacts from the town’s lengthy history of invention and innovation. The museum’s most famous collection is probably its Joel Ellis jointed dolls, he said, which were made in Springfield in the mid-1800s.
Chlebak, who got involved with the organization earlier this year, said the group’s $80,000 endowment had been spent over the last several years, largely for operational costs.
He said the building’s location — up on a hill, with limited parking — worked against its future.
“It’s up on a hill, not down where the people are,” he said. “We’d love to know what people think,” he said.
The organization held its annual meeting Wednesday at Springfield High School cafeteria, Chlebak said, and the entire board “voted themselves off,” in his words. One board member and curator, Emily Stringham, is remaining until the end of the year, he said. New board members include Richard Katz, Hugh Putnam, Rosanne “Bunny” Putnam, and Scott Hafferkamp. Chlebak’s wife Christine is the group’s new treasurer.
Several former board members are remaining involved as curators, he said.
The Miller Art Center was the home to the Miller family from 1928 to 1955.
The building was completed in 1866, replacing an earlier woodframe building. It was extensively remodeled in 1917, according to its nominating petition for the National Register of Historic Places.
The Colonial Revival/Italian Villa-style mansion has a 13-foot deep “colossal Doric portico,” according to the nominating petition.
Before the building was owned by the Millers, it was known as The Whitcomb Mansion, or “The Pillars,” or the Gilman Mansion. It was built by Prentis Whitcomb, a wealthy financier associated with Jim Fiske and Jay Gould of New York City, and later was owned by successive Springfield business leaders.
“When we started, we had quite a large endowment, but a lot has been used to take care of the building. As beautiful as it is, as iconic as it is, it’s expensive,” said Chlebak, who credited former board President Ken Stringham for much of the maintenance work.
The building’s location is also isolating, he said. “It’s a dicey proposition to get up the hill in the winter, and parking’s very limited,” he said.
The roof has some problems, he said, and the electrical systems need to be updated. “It’s something a small nonprofit such as ourselves cannot take care of,” he said.
The art and historical society has consulted with various people and groups, including the Vermont Historical Society and the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
Mark Hudson, executive director of the Vermont Historical Society, said he met with the organization’s leaders about 18 months ago to discuss the future of the building, possible fundraising efforts and available grants.
“We talked about finding ways to raise more money,” said Hudson. “In a nutshell, they needed to turn to their community and to try and generate interest and explaining well to their community what the situation was.”
There are no silver-bullet grants to help an organization like the Springfield Art and Historical Society out of its financial problems, Hudson said. The solution is “grassroots fundraising or creative ways for earned income.”
He said the group had reduced expenses and had continued to do award-winning work, including an art exhibit in 2012 by Betsy Eldredge about her parents, Stuart and Marion Eldredge of Springfield, and this year’s publication by Alan and Donna Jean Fusonie, “A History of the Foundry, Springfield, Vt.: The Entrepreneurs and the Workers of the Soot.”
“‘The Foundry’ received an award of excellence, statewide, just last week,” he said.
Ann Cousins of the Preservation Trust of Vermont said her group had been working with the art center’s board for about six months as they decided what to do.
“We want to give them as much information as possible and try and be helpful,” said Cousins.
Cousins said Springfield’s problem is a national problem of small museums coping, unsuccessfully, with high overhead costs.
“This is not just in Vermont. We are all beginning to notice that it’s really difficult for historical societies to make ends meet running house museums,” she said.
“Houses require capital and maintenace, and some of the small organizations don’t have a fundraising base,” she said.
“It’s a fabulous, fabulous building with unique features,” said Cousins, who said she believed the best use of the building if it is sold is as a residence, once again. The building is so prominent in downtown, she said, and the board is considering how best to protect its facade if the building is sold.
“They’ve really struggled with this,” she said. susan.smallheer