When Caleb Chadsey died, in 1894, he left $10,000 and a parcel of property in the heart of Wickford to the town of North Kingstown for the purposes of creating a community library. And there, at 55 Brown St., is where the local library stood until 1975, when a bigger one was built a few blocks away. The stately 4,600-square-foot Greek Revival building then became the Town Hall Annex, and most recently housed the planning and building departments.
But now that the North Kingstown Town Council has moved to sell the building for $100,000 to a private party for redevelopment into a restaurant/theater/event center – a move that must be approved by voters at a special referendum election on April 24 – the Chadsey family, which first came to Wickford in 1711, is speaking out, and considering legal options.
“We feel that selling this property to a private individual for commercial purposes is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the town’s agreement with our relative, Caleb Allen Chadsey, who clearly intended his gift to be for the public use and benefit,” said a letter from the Chadsey family to the North Kingstown Town Council. “Therefore, we expect that the town will honor the wishes of our family, and discontinue all efforts to sell the Old Library at 55 Brown Street.”
The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings, was vacated by the town after numerous and expensive-to-fix building code violations were discovered there and at Town Hall proper, just down the road. Employees from both buildings currently work in a school department building and some trailers at the high school.
As the town begins the process of locating a new town hall, it’s starting by selling the 55 Brown St. property. There’s already a purchase and sales agreement with Newport chef Eve Clulow to develop a restaurant/theater/event and wedding center.
“There is enormous for this building as a mixed-use facility, one that will provide a public performance arts space, food service, a place for community gatherings, weddings, private events and holiday celebrations,” according to the proposal for the project, which estimates more than $1million in building upgrades. “With the advent of sewers being installed in this downtown area, this potential can be realized.”
But Alan Chadsey, the seventh great grandson of Caleb Chadsey who lives in Virginia, says the town is bound to keep the property public.
“I have contacted my lawyer but we do not wish to speak of potential legalities at this time,” he said. “I have a copy of the handwritten terms of the gift dated 1895 from his probate. I expect to receive an electronic copy of the will, probate, codicil, title, plat maps and any other documents relating to the property including recent appraisals, title search, cost estimates to repair the building, etc. I want to see if these docs match the copies that I am currently in possession of.”
Town Council President Dick Welch doesn’t think there is anything legally preventing the town from selling the building, noting much of the lot, which is public parking and restrooms, will remain town-owned.
“There are no restrictions on the deed,” he said. “It was researched over a year ago.”
Town Councilor Ellen Waxman, the lone vote against the sale, disagrees with Welch.
“The town should honor its contracts, and in this case the agreement it made with the philanthropist who made the gift to the town,” she said. “Mr. Chadsey made a generous donation to the town for the public’s use and benefit. We should absolutely honor his wishes and those of his family. How would you feel if this was your family’s legacy?”
She pointed to a 1985 Board of Library Trustees report concerning the property, which spoke to Chadsey’s bequeath. “Perhaps most important to remember is the original request (sic – bequest?) that gave the property to the town in the first place. It was Mr. Chadsey’s clear intent … that he meant for the property to be of benefit to and for use by the citizens of this town.”
But Waxman also said there is another reason not to sell the building.
“It’s a dumb idea for any town to sell its prime property located in the heart of its village center,” she said in an email to RI Future. “I believe the buyer’s plan shows potential, but if the town wants to go down this avenue, the property should be leased, not sold.”
Welch feels the potential buyer’s plan is in keeping with Caleb Chadsey’s donation of space for the community. “It will serve the public better as a commercial business,” he said. “The business plan makes a lot of sense to me. We will have a property on the tax rolls that hasn’t been. I think the taxpayers are getting a good deal.”
North Kingstown owns four vacant buildings in Wickford – the original Town Hall, the most recent Town Hall, the Town Hall Annex (aka 55 Brown St.) and Wickford Elementary School, which is also for sale.
The Town Council recently hired a consultant to advise on a new town hall, but Waxman said it ought first look holistically at all its vacant properties.
“It would be very helpful for the Town to have an overall vision and plan reflecting the needs/desires/goals of the community,” said Waxman. “Then we could leverage our vacant properties to meet our objectives. The Town Council prefers not to do this and instead utilizes a piecemeal approach to development without looking at the big picture.”