Upon hearing that the State of Rhode Island was abandoning its statehouse in Bristol, George Sisson was spurred to action.
Roping in Pat Conley and Kevin Jordan, Mr. Sisson launched the effort to save the nearly 200-year-old building from dereliction, thus forming the Bristol State House Foundation in the mid-1990s.
“It’s part of our history, and it should be around for the next generation,” said Mr. Jordan. Mr. Conley is no longer active in the foundation, and Mr. Sisson died several years ago. Mr. Jordan is one of four members of the foundation’s current board of directors.
Recently, the foundation reached a milestone — it settled its $125,000 debt. The debt was the result of a loan taken out with the state preservation commission in the late 1990s, enabling two of Bristol’s schools to utilize rooms in the statehouse as a library.
“The buildings were so old, their libraries were in the basement,” Mr. Jordan said. “And it just wasn’t good for the students.”
The foundation renovated two large rooms on the first floor, built bookshelves, installed internet ports and created a kitchen area. The schools utilized the statehouse for six years before the district closed down those buildings (Reynolds and Oliver schools).
At that time, the foundation had been paying down its debt, but still had about $50,000 remaining.
“This is the only debt we’ve incurred,” Mr. Jordan said.
When the foundation was created, Mr. Sisson was adamant about financing the building’s renovations with money in-hand. Over two decades, the foundation held galas, hosted fundraisers and applied for grants — generating the $1.8 million spent so far on renovating the property.
“It was built in 1817, initially with brick,” Mr. Jordan explained. “Then in 1837, the state renovated it in the style you see today, Greek revival.”
During that 1837 renovation, the state moved the staircase from the center of the building to the left and did away with a balcony section, which overlooked the general assembly room.
“During our renovation, we found evidence that a balcony existed, and the backs to the benches were higher,” Mr. Jordan said.
The foundation took great care in removing the layers of linoleum and carpet that covered the original wood floors, which are still visible in the second-floor Quinn room, named after actor Anthony Quinn.
“George recruited (Quinn) to be an actor in a play as a fundraiser for the foundation, and it was a huge success,” Mr. Jordan said. “After his death, his wife became heavily involved with the statehouse project, and we’ve dedicated this room in their memory.”
Throughout its history, the Bristol State House has been home to the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, used as a courthouse, and was an occasional site for the Rhode Island General Assembly.
“The state built five statehouses — North Kingstown, Newport, Providence, Bristol and East Greenwich,” Mr. Jordan said. “As time went on, the state legislature began just meeting in Providence. When the new statehouse was constructed and opened in the ’80s, that’s when they shut down the Bristol statehouse.”
Other uses were found for the remaining buildings: historical society, library and theater company.
While the foundation holds the deed to this building, Mr. Jordan emphasized its use is for the general public.
“This building is for anyone’s use,” he said. “If there are groups that want to meet here, or host speakers, or even have weddings, it’s available.”
There is a small, non-profit rental fee, which pales in comparison to other privately-owned alternatives, Mr. Jordan said.
Currently, the Fourth of July Committee holds permanent office space on the second floor, and below, Bristol’s Athletic Hall of Fame and Mosaico Community Development Co. have space.
With the onset of the statehouse’s 200th anniversary, board member Chris Lowis said he and the foundation are seeking volunteers to help organize and plan the event, as well as subsequent fundraisers to pay for the event.
“We may not have any debt, but we don’t have an endowment,” Mr. Lowis said.
They’re also looking for new board members. The foundation used to have eight members on its board, which has dwindled to four.
“We need new people to bring fresh ideas and energy to the (foundation),” he said.
Anyone interested in participating with the Bristol State House Foundation should contact Mr. Lowis, 401-396-5555; or visit their Web site, www.bristolstatehouse.com.