On Friday, the Southborough Historical Society announced major new plans. It intends to purchase and restore Fayville Hall. Their plan includes relocating the Southborough Historical Museum there and using it as a “history teaching center”.
To that end, they have been raising funds and selling some of their inventory. One of the items they sold was Southborough’s official copy of the Declaration of Independence.
SHS’ announcement refers to a tentative agreement with the owner. There is no mention of the Town’s first right of refusal for purchasing the former municipal property.
In looking into the details, I found a lot of of background to share here, so I’m breaking it down into sections on Fayville Hall, Flagg School, and the Declaration of Independence.
Almost two weeks ago, I wrote a long overdue update on owner Jon Delli Priscoli’s plans for the building. It turns out, those plans changed significantly since he had publicly shared them in February 2021. Sometime since then, he entered conversations with the Southborough Historical Society.
On July 22nd, SHS posted the news:
The Southborough Historical Society, Inc. is pleased to announce that it has reached a tentative agreement to acquire the former Fayville Village Hall for its new home. . .
The exterior of the 1914 building will be restored to its previous Classical Revival glory.
The announcement quotes SHS President Michael Weishan as stating:
The Fayville Village Hall, which is three times the size of our current building, will allow us to create an entirely new local and regional history teaching center for adults as well as our school children, and equally importantly, will provide income-generating opportunities that will guarantee the financial viability of the Society into future decades.
Fayville Hall was sold to Priscoli in 2019 for $21K. While Priscoli was the only bidder*, the Town didn’t market the property to pursue the highest bid. Instead, it issued RFPs seeking offers that would be weighed by conditions buyers would agree to meet.
That method for pursuing the sale was based on pressure from Town Meeting voters to prioritize preservation. In his bid response, Priscoli agreed to preserve the building facade and allow the Town to continue using the parking lot for the baseball diamond and playground across the street.
According to SHS’ announcement, a Preservation Restriction wasn’t placed on the property as part of that deal. [It’s worth noting that Weishan tried unsuccessfully to convince Town Meeting voters to require a PR as part of the 2017 vote giving the Select Board authority to sell the property. The compromise was Board members’ promise to make preservation a factor in their sale decision.]
That’s something SHS pledges to remedy. Wieshan explains:
We are also hugely pleased to demonstrate our dedication to preserving historic buildings outside of the Main Street Corridor, in acknowledgement that our town of Southborough was, and is, comprised of four distinct villages, all equally in need of preservation attention.
Instead of a PR, the Town included riders that gave the Town first right of refusal if Priscoli were to sell the property. Until then, the original buyer’s use of the property is restricted:
Parties agree that a contingency of this sale of a historical public asset of the Town is that the structure will not be demolished or substantially torn down. The parties agree that the renovation and reconstruction shall substantially comply with the terms as detailed in Buyer’s response to the Towns RFP for the property. It is further agreed that the property if destroyed by a catastrophe, act of God or force majeure or as it was intended by the RFP, it shall be reconstructed substantially to the state it was prior to said catastrophe, Act of God or force majeure, at the sole expense of the owner. This provision does not affect Buyers right to renovate the property as anticipated herein and shall survive closing.
The rider also required a parking easement to be granted – 8 designated daytime spaces and 4 “floating” spaces for users of Fay Field. (It doesn’t specify if the easement was permanent, to be passed on to subsequent owners.)
As for what was in the referenced accepted bid. . . The proposal touted Priscoli’s experience and credentials related to restoring period buildings. It stated that exterior “Elements shown in the historic photograph” would be “followed as close as possible.”
The bid also pitched that planned use of the hall as an antiques shop and a fine art gallery would benefit the community:
17. The economic benefits to the town are numerous. The building will be preserved in historical style and the building will be placed on the tax rolls. The building will attract visitors from surrounding towns and beyond who will visit other establishments during their visit (restaurants, gas stations, lodging, and tourism) This effort will boost the cultural base of the town.
18. We will create both full and part-time employment for this area.
In September 2019, Priscoli received Planning Board approval for its Major Site Plan and a Special Permit for Adaptive Reuse, allowing him to use the building as an Auction House/ Antique Shop/ Fine Arts Gallery.
As I recently wrote, Priscoli described his revised plans for the building to the Historical Commission in February 2021. At that time he said that he would be moving his offices to the building. No reference was made in that meeting to a retail business, and it doesn’t a appear to be a condition of the P&S.
With the property potentially now coming off the tax rolls, I reached out to Weishan to learn whether his organization would offer PILOT donations (Payment in Lieu of Taxes). He responded that the efforts he has publicly supported to pursue increasing PILOT revenue had only targeted the three largest property owning non-profits in town (i.e. Fay School, St. Mark’s School, and NECC).
Another rider in the Town’s agreement did allow the Town to repurchase the property if restoration work didn’t begin by January 2021. The facade of the building doesn’t show signs of work since 2018, and in fact now looks shabbier. But according to Priscoli’s February 2021 update, serious interior work had already begun by that winter.
He told the Commission that his guys had already almost fully gutted the building’s interior. He described insect problems that had rotted a section of the building (facing from the street, the left rear corner). At that time he indicated a lot of work that still needed to be done though he forecast it moving quickly.
I asked Weishan for more information about what work had and hadn’t been completed (plus clarification of timing of discussions and SHS board decisions). Weishan wouldn’t comment, citing the fact that the deal was “recent and ongoing”. He did hope to issue further updates/bulletins in the future.
The announcement anticipates a grand opening in fall of 2023.
For those of you unfamiliar with the building’s history – the over 100 year old building was the community center for the village, hosted WWI war relief efforts, and served as a health center with tent hospital to handle the 1918 influenza epidemic. (You can read more about it here.)
SHS announcement refers to the purchase as prompted by their motivation to move out of the current Southborough Historical Museum – Flagg School. Weishan shared an assessment of a preservation architect group that estimated over $290K in repair work is needed. Meanwhile, he has been butting heads with the Select Board over the building lease and costs (among other issues).
According to information posted by SHS (see image right), the building is the oldest one owned by the Town, built in 1859 (at the intersection of Flagg and Deerfoot Roads). It was relocated to its current location on Common Street in 1894, then converted into the Fire Station in 1906. Eventually it was used for other municipal departments. In 1998 the building was leased to the SHS. They hired Assabet Valley High School to help with renovations.
SHS had been leasing use of the Town owned building for $10 per year. According to Select Board minutes, as part of that agreement, SHS was “responsible for heat, electricity, water, phone, alarm monitoring, insurance, snow removal, general repairs and maintenance.”
Apparently, in 2016 Weishan publicly spoke about renegotiating that lease with the Town. It expired in 2017. It appears that following the lapse, some of the expenses were covered by the Historical Commission.
That was the issue that Lisa Braccio of the Select Board pointed to earlier this year as what prompted her research of past Historical Commission accounting ledgers. (That led to her discovering a questionable reimbursement request. After seeking opinion from Town Counsel, the Board confronted Weishan with a potential ethics conflict. He disputed the claim, made counter accusations, then resigned from his position as Chair of the Historical Commission.)
In the Select Board’s April 12th meeting, Braccio spoke about the need to put in place a new lease to protect both the Town and SHS. She noted that in the expired lease stated that SHS was to remove all its property at termination of the lease. She said that no one wanted that to happen.
In a follow up discussion on April 26th, the Board referred to Weishan’s unwillingness to pay for building expenses. An email with the meeting documents shows Weishan’s hostile response to a request to put a new lease in place with minimal changes. It included:
as an opening-and non negotiable-point of these discussions, there is no way that the Society would every agree to sign such an agreement again.
I can’t speak as to what my predecessors were thinking when they offered to maintain a Town-owned building at their own expense(!!!), but it was then, and is now, completely untenable, impractical, and frankly hugely unfair to an organization that provides a vast public service to Southborough. . .
So how is this for a start: we agree to a new lease for $1, for one year. We will assume no costs or responsibility to run/maintain this building, and the Society and the Town can both explore options in the meantime. Of course, if this is not acceptable, and you wish to force us to vacate the premises, we will of course comply with suitable notice.
His message also referred to the past expense of maintaining the building “which almost bankrupted” SHS, the work they put into the building, and the estimated future costs needed.
In the Select Board’s April 26th discussion, Braccio explained that the Town is unable to pay for a private entity’s utilities. They agreed to communicate with the entire SHS’ board and invite them to attend a future meeting. The Board’s hope was to work out a mutually beneficial resolution. I couldn’t find any follow up to that discussion in subsequent meetings.
Declaration of Independence
I was informed that SHS sold Southborough’s official copy of the Declaration of Independence. Following up, I found the item on Sotheby’s website, which lists it as sold for $2.228M in a July 21st auction. An email from Weishan in response to my inquiry for more context states that the sale “fetched 1.8 million”.
While it has been referred to as Southborough’s “official broadside copy”, Weishan confirmed that it wasn’t the Town’s. As detailed by Sotheby’s, the Council of the Commonwealth ordered the broadside printing on July 17th, 1776 for copies to be issued to “to the Ministers of each Parish, of every Denomination, within this State” to be read to their congregations. This authorized copy was issued to Reverend Nathan Stone, the head of the First Church of Southborough.
Following the reading, each Town Clerk was to “record the same in their respective Town, or District Books, there to remain as a perpetual Memorial thereof.” That handwritten version by the Clerk is what the Town has ownership rights to. According to Weishan it is among a set of Town documents from that period that were in the Town House until at least the 1980s when author Richard Noble consulted them. (They appear to have been lost since, though he hopes they will turn up.)
Of the version sold, Weishan explained that SHS’ board decided that what could be achieved through the sale of was of greater value to their mission than keeping it – especially given the expense entailed in preserving it:
The Declaration copy has been in our possession since the Society’s inception in 1965. It was then worth about 3K. Then in the 80s, 20 K. Then in the nineties 250K, then 700K etc etc until we reached a point where we could no longer afford to insure it, display it, or safely house it—even in the safe—without an adequate fire suppression system.
The board has been contemplating what to do about this dramatic rise in commercial value for half a decade now, ever since the Flagg School flooded in 2016 and the collection was severely compromised.
Then came the recent conditions report on the Flagg school.
Of course, we could have sold this copy at any point, but we wanted to make sure that the de-acquisition made more than just a monetary contribution to our mission. When this amazing opportunity arose to permanently preserve one of our most important civic buildings—which currently has no preservation restriction— the board agreed that holding onto a single piece of paper that existed in multiple copies in public collections across the state, and further, one that was actually deleterious to the finances of the Society, was not in the best interests of historical preservation in Southborough.
We are excited to begin work on an expanded museum and archives, and thrilled to provide Southborough with a dynamic new meeting space and vastly increased access to our historic collections, which at this point number 10K items and counting.
For those interested in more history of the broadside copy, I found multiple sources, each including some details that the others lacked. (Sotheby’s website which also allows you to closely zoom in to see richer detail. The description that was formerly posted on SHS’ website. News articles from 2012 when the document was promoted as on display – Metrowest Daily News and the Community Advocate. There were also some great passages in Noble’s Fences of Stone which you can check out from the Library.)