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03/20/2018 12:00 AM

Westbrook Military Historians Museum Closed and Empty

The Military Historians Headquarters Museum has shut up shop at its location on the Westbrook Town Green and sold its extensive collection of military uniforms, artifacts, and patches. Photo courtesy of Cathie Doane

What is the story behind the closure of a Town Green landmark: the Military Historians Headquarters Museum? That’s the question that many Westbrook residents have asked in recent weeks as they watched the loading of the museums’ contents into Penske trucks and a “For Lease” sign appear in the now-empty museum’s front window. It’s a story with several threads—and some mysteries too.

In recent years residents and visitors notes that the museum rarely appeared to be open. Perhaps that was because William Reid, collector and owner of the museum’s collection of military uniforms, artifacts, and patches, was in failing health. In January, 2018, he passed away.

“Bill Reid owned the building and the items inside. The interior rooms were beautifully done—women’s military uniforms, General Schwartzkopf’s shirt, flags—the [collection] represented a range of eras,” said Doane. “The basement was full of cigar boxes [filled] with military patches.”

Russ Loller of Battlezone Army & Navy in Orange, Connecticut, confirmed that his firm bought the museum’s contents. The purchase was “a private investment. Some things will be sold, some will be displayed, and some will go to a West Haven military museum.”

Loller also suggested that a few items with ties to Westbrook or with Westbrook’s name on them may return to the Westbrook Historical Society for display.

With the Westbrook Place building and associated barn in the back now nearly empty, a For Lease sign has appeared in the front window.

The History of A Historical Museum

Westbrook Historical Society President Cathie Doane said that the brick building that housed the museum for more than three decades, was originally built by her grandfather, William Neidlinger, as the town’s new Post Office. According to WHS records, the Neidlinger family leased what was then the old Post Office building in 1978 to the Company of the Military Historians; in 1982, the family sold it to William Reid.

Doane writes that the deed describes the new owners as the “Company of the Military Historians, a literary, educational and scientific non-profit organization organized and existing under the laws of the District of Columbia, acting herein by William R. Reid, Administration & Assistant Treasurer, hereinafter referred to as The Company”.

According to Town Assessor Pam Fogarty’s records, when the property’s ownership transferred to William Reid, the town received documentation that the Military Historians Museum he administered was declared by the IRS to be a qualified 501 (c)(3) organization exempt from paying real estate, personal property and income taxes. In accordance with town rules, every four years, non-profit organizations in town must re-confirm they continue to be registered and qualified as a 501(c)(3) organization. These forms—Fogarty referred to them as quadrennial forms—had been returned routinely by an “agent” acting on behalf of Reid’s Military Historian’s Museum organization.

A Mystery for the Town

Here begins the mystery. On Dec. 31, 2013, Charles W. Reid became the owner of the building. Then on May 27, 2014, the owner of record according to Town Assessor documents, became Military Historians Museum, LLC, whose principals are listed as Charles Reid and Karen Hartt. According to Fogarty, Richard S. Palladino, acting as agent for the LLC, signed and submitted to the Town Assessor a quadrennial form confirming that the LLC owner continued to qualify for property tax exemption.

On the LegalZoom website, an article about LLCs and non-profits suggests that the LLC structure is rarely used by non-profit organizations because each members of the LLC has to incorporate individually as a tax-exempt non-profit organization. So, a LLC could be a non-profit but this organizational structure is used rarely for non-profits.

So there still is confusion in Town Hall about whether the current LLC owner of 24 Westbrook Place would or would not qualify for the property tax exemption it has received since 2014. After speaking with Town Attorney Michael Wells, First Selectman Noel Bishop and Fogarty agreed that the Town Assessor would write a letter to the current owner asking for updated documentation proving eligibility for a non-profit tax exemption. If the current owner, the Military Historians Museum LLC, does not provide this documentation in a timely fashion, Fogarty plans to issue tax bills to cover the years since ownership changed: 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Not known also is whether the non-profit organization owner listed on the 1984 property deed, The Company of Military Historians, remains an active non-profit organization or has been dissolved.

What Cathie Doane laments about the museum’s sudden closure and sale of its contents is the dispersal of the historical artifacts that the museum contained.

“It was a huge, huge museum. It would have been nice if someone from the military could have taken it on,” said Doane.

But that was not to be.