A Mansion Built by General James Mitchell Varnum
It was 1773 when James Mitchell Varnum purchased a large plot of land overlooking Greenwich Bay in East Greenwich, RI, for the sum of $90. Varnum, a gifted 24 year-old lawyer, did not buy the property solely for the view, but also because it sat behind the Kent County Courthouse (now East Greenwich Town Hall) where the most powerful and influential colonial leaders frequently met. As a prominent figure in the Revolutionary War and early-American politics, Varnum attracted a “who’s who” of guests to his mansion including George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, Rochambeau, John Sullivan, Nathanael Greene, and many others.
Varnum House Museum Architecture
Constructed by master builder John Reynolds, the house was built in keeping with the best architectural standards of the late 18th century. This Georgian-styled mansion has a hipped roof, modillioned cornices, heavily-moulded caps, and a central pedimented doorway with columned porch. The Varnum House Museum is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Varnum House Museum Today
In 1939, the Varnum Continentals purchased the house and converted it into a premier house museum containing numerous historical artifacts ranging from the late 17th century through the mid 19th century. The Varnum House Museum is open format, meaning that very few exhibits are behind glass or ropes. It is as if you’re touring the house as it appeared in the late 18th century! The Varnum House Museum’s exhibits focus on early American furniture, household items, musical instruments, children’s toys, documents, paintings, and much more. Some of the more impressive exhibits include a 1690 officer’s chair, a 1794 pianoforte made by William Frecker of London, a miniature punch bowl gifted from General Lafayette to Varnum as a housewarming present, and General Varnum’s own desk.
A very unique aspect of the house’s exhibits is the large number of historical items sourced from the Far East, including China, Japan, Persia (now Iran), and more. This includes Chinese punch bowls and dinner ware dating to the 18th century, hand-carved ivory sewing kits, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper dating to the early 19th century, and Persian reverse-glass paintings dating to the 18th century.
Varnum House Museum’s Period Herb Garden (sustained by the URI Master Gardeners)
The Varnum House Museum’s Garden is a recreation of a historic dye, medicinal, and household garden using plants appropriate to the era of the house. In 2011, the URI Master Gardeners created a garden using the existing brick work, walls, and boxwood hedges as a framework. They researched plants and laid out the framework of the garden at that time. Each year, the Master Gardeners have added or refined our selection of plants. Just click here for more information about the Varnum House Museum’s 18th-century herb garden.
Tour the Varnum House Museum
The Varnum House is open to the public. Please see dates and hours for this year’s season at the bottom of this page. Tours by appointment can be scheduled outside of those hours by contacting the curator. Schedule a tour of the Varnum House Museum by calling 401-884-1776 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.