March 04, 2009 News & Features » Cover Story


Civic War 

Political infighting, power plays and personal attacks: How Richmond's most prestigious preservation group lost its way — and its mission.

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It was a brisk day in February 2005 when protesters lined the sidewalk in front of the old Hotel Richmond across from the General Assembly office building.

Led by the firebrand members of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, the group called for the 100-year-old structure on Grace Street to be saved from the wrecking ball. The state wanted to tear it down to make way for a new office building.

It was a worthy fight, but one in which the alliance's leaders quietly wished for only a few powerful allies.

“We were at risk then, standing to lose six very historic downtown landmarks,” says Jennie Dotts, who served as executive director of the alliance at the time.

But with winter's chill still in the air, one such potential ally was absent — the Historic Richmond Foundation, which had gone into what seemed like indefinite hibernation on the preservation front.

“We thought HRF would help,” Dotts says. “But they were nowhere to be found. They were silent.”

For more than 50 years, the most reliable advocate for the city's precious landmarks has been the nonprofit Historic Richmond Foundation. But in the past few years, the organization has found itself in a desperate fight for its own preservation.

Some people say that what's torn at the fabric of the foundation is bitter infighting between new-guard leadership and old-line preservationists that began back in 2005 — just as Dotts and the alliance were beginning to capture headlines while fighting to rescue such structures as the Hotel Richmond, the art deco MCV West Hospital and the White House of the Confederacy.

As with so many stories, this is one about money and power.

It's a story that began with foundation's consolidation with the William Byrd branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, according to some observers. The move was made in part to provide better financial footing for the foundation and a buffer of protection for the Byrd branch's hefty bank account from its statewide parent.

In the process, the combined group's mission became less about preserving historic buildings and more about preserving bank balances, critics say.

There was plenty of money at stake. One noted preservation specialist with intimate knowledge of the merger says the reunion was “primarily for money.”

At the time of the 2005 merger, the William Byrd branch — viewed by some as more of a social organization than one rallying to save landmarks — was sitting on millions of dollars. Yet, the preservationist says, on condition of anonymity, “The [William Byrd] APVA never spent any money — they did like 14 projects over 50 years.”

Further, the branch's money was threatened by a possible request to ante up from the state APVA for its Jamestown 2007 celebrations.

The Historic Richmond Foundation, meanwhile, had limited cash flow, but was responsible for saving hundreds of important buildings. It also had a respectable bank balance in the form of endowment money.

Once combined, the Byrd branch's money was safe from the state APVA, and the foundation's coffers were brimming. The group's 2006 financial statement declared net assets worth $10.7 million.
It seemed like a good match — more resources meant more ability to act. But it didn't work out that way. “It would be accurate to say the merger didn't work,” the preservationist says. “What you ended up with was a quasi-preservation organization that doesn't do any preservation. It counts its money.”

It's a strange irony that the Byrd branch should be so interested in keeping its wallet safe, considering the heady talk in the run-up to the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, which expected to draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to the state. Many city boosters around town saw the celebration as an opportunity to put Richmond on the historic map alongside Williamsburg and Jamestown.

Questions of motive ring true to many observers of the merger.

“The people running [the combined] HRF do not appear to have any heart for preservation,” says Melinda Skinner, a former member and foundation staffer.

Skinner had purchased a house in Church Hill from the Historic Richmond Foundation in 1971, and liked what she saw. That foundation, led by a group of old Richmond matriarchs unafraid to roll up their sleeves and get painting, spent years buying and fixing up the once-dilapidated old homes on the hill. They didn't take selling one of those homes lightly. Skinner recalls going through a vetting process just as exhaustive as any adoption.

That spirit is gone, she says: “It happens — you get more and more of these people who are there for social reasons … and then you begin to lose the mission of the place.”

In an e-mail to Patti Loughridge in January, then the president of the Historic Richmond Foundation's women's auxiliary, Calder Loth, a historian with the Department of Historic Resources and a longtime foundation supporter, expressed his concerns.

“As of now, I don't know what its purpose is or what it stands for, if anything,” he wrote. “I don't think I'm alone in this regard. I frankly don't see HRF having any meaning unless there is a change in both attitudes and leadership.”

Critics say it's a disappointing time for the foundation to be so absent just as a new round of historic preservation fights are kicking into high gear — beginning with the fight over a proposed ballpark in Shockoe Bottom.

“They were so effective in the beginning,” Dotts says. “Richmond wouldn't be the city is if they didn't do what they did.”

Foundation officials dispute claims that they've gone dormant, saying they're more invested in preservation than ever.

“We stand ready to take [ownership] of significant buildings,” says the foundation's executive director, Mary Jane Hogue, who assumed the post 18 months ago. She refers to the foundation's rescue of the 1720s-era Patteson-Schutte House on South Side, one of the oldest houses in the city. “And we're publishing a book on Church Hill. None of this happens without us spending money.”

“I don't think we've ever been stronger,” Hogue says.

But strength is only an advantage if used properly, say a number of former members of the Historic Richmond Foundation Council — the group's women's auxiliary.

It is this women's auxiliary group — historically composed of 60 members — that has largely assumed the foundation's heavy lifting. Members of the group have for many years been responsible for the bulk of the foundation's fundraising and most of the educational programs it provides for the public, they say.

But the women's group was running into resistance — from within the foundation. By last summer the foundation's own mission seemed to have morphed into one bent on putting a stranglehold on the activities of its devoted women's group.

Internal documents, memos and e-mails between the two sides sound less like the work of genteel West End matriarchs and top-drawer lawyers, and more like dialogue from a Mexican soap opera.

The drama — complete with multiple, competing plot lines — began in earnest in early spring of 2008, when a simple fundraiser planned by the women's auxiliary blipped on the radar of the foundation's executive board and then-president Ken McArthur.

By the time it was all over in September, about a dozen former members of the women's auxiliary had tendered their resignations. Just a few years prior, the foundation had also gone through a succession of staffers who resigned or were forced out under questionable circumstances. In June, two members of the women's auxiliary were forcibly ejected by the foundation's executive board after being accused of “severe and irreparable harm to HRF.”

The foundation's leadership would not comment on those dismissals, or on the departure of staff, saying they were private personnel matters.

What is known from internal documents is that during the dust-up, the foundation's board dissolved the women's auxiliary, creating from its ashes the New Council of the HRF, a limited liability corporation over which the foundation's board had compete control as its sole voting member.

The first shots in the internal melee came in March, when McArthur informed Loughridge, president of the women's auxiliary, that it had acted outside its limitations and potentially in violation of the organization's tax-exempt status by signing contracts for a planned antiques show, Chic Antiques.

By April 4, relations between the parent and auxiliary had soured in earnest.

In a letter to McArthur, Loughridge questioned the need for any changes, telling McArthur via e-mail that she was “saddened by the process which the Board of Directors chose to attempt to change our bylaws” as “… further research has indicated to us that we currently are in FULL compliance with IRS regulations.”

By April 2008, the women unanimously voted to explore the possibility of creating a separate, tax-exempt group that would still operate at the direction of the foundation, but have autonomy approximating what had been in place for the previous 50 years.

It was not to be. Former members of women's auxiliary say the foundation rebuffed their efforts, even as the planned Chic Antiques event sputtered and died.

In a five-page memo dated June 10, McArthur questioned the loyalty of the women's auxiliary leadership, suggesting that their new group sought to be “functionally competitive with” the foundation.

He wrote of “persistent rumors that two or three members” of the women's auxiliary were meeting with the foundation's supporters and telling them that the group “would soon become a new, independent preservation organization in Richmond.”

McArthur did not return a call for comment. Tom Fahed, Hogue's cousin and a former president, also did not return several calls for comment. 

McArthur's letter reveals a paranoia, sources say, that represented the foundation's intent to squelch competing preservationist messages in Richmond.

In fact, even as the foundation sought to rein in voices from within, it also may have been doing the same outside.

It's unclear who first approached whom, but during the same summer months when the women's auxiliary struggled to maintain its autonomy, the foundation also entered into negotiations with the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods.

Just as the foundation once was the upstart offspring of the William Byrd APVA branch, so too was ACORN born in the late 1990s from a desire to do more to preserve Richmond architectural resources.

The groups held three meetings, according to sources close to the talks, one of whom categorized them as “exploratory discussions.” James Phillips, a local attorney who represented ACORN at the last such meeting, confirms the talks but declines to discuss them.

Sources say ACORN pulled out, warned off by concerned parties who suggested consolidation likely would result in the demise of their activist presence in the city.

It's too bad, says Skinner, a former foundation member. When she left the Historic Richmond Foundation in 1997, she co-founded ACORN.

“I thought, wouldn't it be cool if we're under the APVA umbrella,” Skinner says of the now-scuttled merger talks. “We preserve the neighborhoods and they preserve the big fancy buildings. It seemed [last summer] to be a possibility.”

While Skinner watched from outside, Ellen LeCompte was among those on the inside watching the foundation's assault on her beloved women's group. 

“In the past, the HRF has accomplished great things,” LeCompte says — saving and restoring Broad Street landmarks such as Old City Hall, the National Theater, Monumental Church and establishing Church Hill as an historic district.

When she resigned in June, LeCompte's letter to the women's auxiliary described the foundation board's “personal attacks” on its members as “not the sort of conduct with which I wished to be associated.”

She referred to the treatment of the auxiliary's former president, Loughridge, as well as the two other members booted out.

“The HRF that I knew, I joined, I worked hard for, and I believed in has essentially deteriorated into a very cliquish Old Boy club,” LeCompte wrote. “It was a great organization and it has the potential to be a great organization, I just think they need to be reengaged with the original mission.”

If the ACORN discussions ended abruptly, the end of the Chic Antiques fundraiser was messy.
The Monument Avenue Preservation Society initially made waves over the event in March, but a letter from the society's president, Mary Roach, made clear the organization's displeasure with the event and its location at the Virginia Center for Architecture — and gave the foundation reason to purge the women's auxiliary.

Roach's letter, a high point in the dramatic narrative, was too much for Peggy Younts, secretary of the women's auxiliary. She'd worked as an organizer of the event since February, and let fly with a blistering letter to Roach, calling the Monument Avenue group “pernicious by nature, truly selfish and embarrassingly elitist” and Roach “duplicitous.”

The letter spelled doom for both Younts and Chic Antiques.

On Aug. 29, it ended. In a letter to members of the women's auxiliary, McArthur informed the membership of the group's dissolution and the creation of the Council of Historic Richmond Foundation LLC, “which now supersedes” the women's auxiliary.

In a final act of defiance, four members of the women's auxiliary's executive committee — with the inclusion of Younts — met Sept. 4 and unanimously voted to remove Karen Emroch, then president of the women's auxiliary and wife of well-known personal injury attorney Walter Emroch, citing violations of the organization's bylaws and her alleged months-long unilateral negotiations with the board.

Days later, Susan Sprinkle, the group's vice-president, resigned. Others resigned too. Loughridge had already gone, and a flurry of e-mail resignations came in to women's auxiliary leadership.

There was another important casualty. In addition to ejecting Younts, the foundation dismissed longtime member and successful fundraiser Mary Hunton in June.

Hunton, who says the previous year she was also forced off the HRF board, is widely credited with some of the most significant fundraising for the Monumental Church preservation project. She is despondent — and perplexed — by her banishment. But she's also angry about the organization's turgid immobility.

Recent tax filings show little activity beyond book sales and a few annual fundraisers — that and making money in the stock market.

Hunton goes further, suggesting that not only is the group hoarding money, but also may be violating its IRS requirements for spending on its mission. Nonprofits such as Historic Richmond must spend at least 5 percent of contributions every year on their core mission.

Even larger violations may be in expenditures that have directly benefited the families or businesses of the foundation's leaders, Hunton alleges. When the foundation moved to its headquarters to Main Street, Hunton says she went with the foundation's leaders to JMJ Corp., an area office furniture supply company owned by Hogue's father. There, they purchased more than $90,000 in furniture, Hunton says, with funds raised by the women's auxiliary.

She points to two of her final fundraising projects, both for improvements to Monumental Church, as example of the foundation's disinterest in its core mission. With the first, in March 2007, she says she secured $250,000 from Bank of America for air conditioning improvements. The money was later turned down by HRF.

Then there was what she says was potential millions of dollars likely to come through a relationship she and then-foundation director Conover Hunt had formed with noted area philanthropist and fundraising guru Wallace Stettinius, former chief executive of Cadmus Communications.

“I can't tell you how embarrassing it was to call [Stettinius] and say I don't know how to tell you this, but Conover's been fired and I've been kicked off the board,” Hunton says. “I wanted more than anything to see Monumental finished in my lifetime. Nothing is happening. … that building is mothballed.”

That's not strictly true. A great deal of restoration has occurred with the church, according to foundation officials. The facility is used for weddings and other events — because of a cooperative agreement with Virginia Commonwealth University for use of nearby bathrooms. And the group soon will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the one-of-a-kind historic landmark, built with an overwhelming flood of national and city donations after a tragic 1811 theater fire that claimed 72 lives, including incoming Virginia Gov. George W. Smith. The building is the only such structure remaining that was designed by Robert Mills, an architectural student of Thomas Jefferson.

For its part, the foundation says it had good reason to scale back spending.

Historic Richmond Foundation's current president, Mark Webb, says the stock market and worldwide financial turmoil have put the squeeze both on contributions and on the foundation's investments.

Webb sees many of the events of last year differently than as portrayed by detractors.

“The [women's auxiliary] requested the creation of a separate legal entity,” he says, suggesting they wanted to do fundraising “activities that they couldn't before.”

He insists the new women's auxiliary remains as independent in its actions as before, rejecting the notion that it must ask approval for all initiatives and expenditures, and that its members are subject to dismissal by the board without cause. 

And the executive committee's vote to remove Emroch in the wake of the formation of the New Council LLC never happened “as far as we know,” Webb says.

Whether the foundation has fallen off its historic preservation high horse is a matter of perspective, too. For one, Hogue disputes accounts that the foundation was silent during the fight to preserve MCV West Hospital.

“HRF went behind the scenes to talk to VCU,” she says, “and West Hospital is not in danger.”

Dotts, who led the charge and was known to crash Virginia Commonwealth University Board of Visitors meetings to plead the cause, remains unconvinced.

“The M.O. is to say they work quietly behind the scenes,” Dotts says. “That way nobody knows if you're doing anything or not.”

She calls it “not part of their corporate culture” to aggressively work for preservation causes.

Webb insists the foundation enters fights over preservation when needed. He acknowledges the group's silence so far on the Shockoe Bottom ballpark proposal — a plan that could potentially alter one of the city's most historic districts and bury forever its history as a slave-trading capital.

“We're obviously actively monitoring the situation and the issues,” he says, noting HRF's opposition to a similar proposal four years ago.

Not all outsiders see HRF as derelict in its duties.

Rachel Flynn, the city's director of community development, says Hogue, the foundation's executive director, participated in drawing the downtown master plan. She has been vocal in other preservation activities as well, including loudly opposing the Oakwood Heights project in Church Hill that was recently approved by City Council.

“They speak at public meetings,” Flynn says — “they bought the National and saved that.” She says historic cities such as Richmond often have dueling preservationist groups — one more of an activist, such as ACORN, and the other more staid in its approach, like the Historic Richmond Foundation.

It's an important dynamic, Flynn says — kind of the good cop, bad cop approach: “You need both sides.” S



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