Wainwright House Needs Partners and a Path Forward
By Robin Jovanovich
The stars have not aligned for Wainwright House this past year. A perfect storm of cancelled weddings and events in the main house and the loss of longstanding lessees of the Carriage House and Fonrose House, the Rye YMCA and Brava Dance, respectively, threatens the future of the 70-year-old organization. The pandemic has hit them doubly hard.
Founded in 1951 with the belief “that there should be a place under one roof where people of all backgrounds could aspire to a deeper understanding of others”, Wainwright House is today beset by schisms. Over the years, the City has reduced the number of permitted weddings on the five-acre waterfront property from a requested 20 to eight, due to the concerted outcry of nearby homeowners about the increased noise, traffic, and safety issues that attend weddings. The organization’s current agreement with the City expires later this year.
Meanwhile, the Wainwright board envisions a future in which they are not only a wedding venue but once again a vibrant destination for retreats and programs that promote human potential and wellness.
“We need a regular income stream, which weddings provide,” explained trustee Lexy Tomaino in a recent conversation inside the main house, “but we also know that if we offer the right mix of programs, we can attract a steady local audience and new members, which are also vital.”
She pointed to three events held in the last quarter of 2020 that sold out — the Halloween Festival and two ballet performances by the Carole Alexis Company.
Meanwhile, Wainwright has a tax bill they can’t pay, acknowledged Board President and Treasurer Robert Manheimer at our meeting. The meeting occurred a few days after the City Council unanimously decided at its February 3 meeting to take no action on the Milton Harbor Foundation petition to operate RowAmericaRye at a new facility at Wainwright. The plan would mean the razing of Fonrose House, which is revered but in disrepair, and a Zoning change to permit this new use.
It’s important to note that while the Council didn’t refer the petition to the Planning Commission or vote on it, they didn’t table the matter.
“We don’t want to cast off Wainwright,” said Councilmember Ben Stacks at the Council meeting, “and we need to help preserve it if we can, but this proposal asks too much. To fundamentally change a use in a residential neighborhood to commercial is tough for the neighbors.”
Councilmember Carolina Johnson agreed that the community needed to rally behind Wainwright. “RowAmerica is an amazing program, but a match between them and Wainwright is not a match made in heaven.”
In Councilmember Pam Tarlow’s view, “This is not one or the other. RowAmerica’s current landlord on Milton Road is willing to expand and improve the facility in order to keep the program there.” She said the Council needs to consider the impact of Milton Point property values if RowAmerica moves to Stuyvesant Avenue.
Jonathan Kraut, attorney for the Milton Harbor Foundation, noted that the program had outgrown the Milton Road facility and that the reality is that if RowAmerica isn’t able to relocate here, there won’t be rowing in Rye.”
The Wainwright board was “disappointed” and “stunned” by the Council’s decision. “We thought there would be next steps, not a wholesale dismissal of the preliminary plan,” said Manheimer.
“It’s not often that a white knight (in this case, Howard Winklevoss, who has a passion for rowing) comes to an organization and offers to build and gift a new facility,” he emphasized. Mr. Winklevoss approached Wainwright in 2019 and he and members of the Wainwright board met with neighbors, showed them a back-of-the-envelope sketch, and outlined the plan. Among the advantages of this plan, said Manheimer, “is that Fonrose House is a money pit which would require enormous expense to repair so razing the building solves a problem for us; the new facility, which could be used for weddings, would complement the style of the main house and be soundproof; and there are no rowing classes over the summer.”
Tomaino added, “Wainwright has been a good neighbor. We respect the rules, the fact that music needs to be off by a certain hour. We pay an off-duty police officer whenever we host a large event.
“We are not wedded to any final plan, but we believed that bringing a green sport like rowing to Wainwright was a plan that was good for the community as well as our organization.”
The Foundation was perceived as good for all. Wainwright wanted to partner with a nonprofit; the seed money could be used to raise money for the maintenance of Milton Harbor and the rowing program; and it gave Wainwright an arm’s length agreement with RowAmerica.
Right now, the larger question for City officials and the community is what can be done to ensure the preservation of Wainwright House, a beautiful and historic place, as well as the continuation of RowAmericaRye in our backyard.