AUGUSTA — Philanthropist Elsie Pike Viles, who died last March at age 98, made sure her legacy would be felt in the city for a very long time.
She left an estate worth almost $20 million to the Elsie & William Viles Foundation, along with the hope that her historic Stone Street property be used for “educational, historical and cultural seminars, meetings, retreats, workshops and symposia, and as a temporary residence for visiting dignitaries, scholars, educators, artists and civic and cultural leaders.”
The directions are contained in her will.
Now those charged with carrying out her wishes are moving to implement the plan.
Patsy West, who was Viles’ primary caregiver, is now executive director of the Elsie & William Viles Foundation. The foundation’s goals are listed online at elsieandwilliamvilesfoundation.org: “preserve open spaces and conservation of forest land; care for and protect animals; support children and education, and promote and preserve Maine history and culture.”
Daniel Wathen, former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, is president of the foundation. Mark Johnston, president and chief executive officer of Kennebec Savings Bank, is treasurer. Both men were friends of Viles and her late husband, as were the others on the seven-member board.
Last week, West, Wathen and Johnston sat in a parlor at the Viles house, bathed in bright light as the setting sun shined through the west wall of tall windows and talked about the estate’s future.
“Elsie’s still in charge,” said Wathen, who previously had been foundation vice president but acknowledged that when Elsie Viles was president, there was little for him to do.
“At this point, everybody on the board has known Elsie a long, long time while Elsie was president. We’ve sort of learned her likes and dislikes, and we feel pretty confident that Elsie is still ruling us.”
He said the board is charged with paying out money annually to specified beneficiaries, with the discretion to add a few local charities, largely those that Viles supported during her life. The foundation also is to assure the continuation of the Elsie and William Viles Scholarship Fund, which will award a scholarship to a Cony senior — elected by a high school committee on the basis of scholarship and character — who attends a Maine college or university. This year, the scholarship will be for $17,500 for each of the four years of college.
The foundation board also has specified funds to make upgrades at the house so it could be used to host meetings for local nonprofit groups.
“Elsie was a very good hostess, and it’s sort of a continuation of that,” Wathen said. Thousands of china teacups and saucers stored in cabinet after cabinet in a series of pantries off the dining room remain as evidence of her frequent hospitality.
“Elsie’s parties or gatherings always had an educational or cultural aspect,” West said, and that’s what the board seeks to perpetuate. “She did not want it as a museum.”
The foundation will use two or three rooms in the house as office space, and West will coordinate the requests to use the house for meetings. There is no charge.
So far, a garden club is scheduled to meet there in April and the Kennebec Historical Society in September.
The board still is developing plans and awaiting recommendations, but work visible to passing motorists has been done recently on the historic house itself, which stands on 85 acres, one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the intown area.
High shrubs and some trees are gone from the perimeter of the house, and the wood that frames the brick exterior has had a fresh coat of an antique-gold paint. The two-story house, with multiple chimneys and numerous bathrooms and bedrooms, now pops into view as motorists head south on Stone Street. There’s a finished barn as well, which started life as a six-stall stable.
The parlor looks onto a gated formal garden area now hidden under snow and ice. That will be redone this spring.
Inside, much of the furniture Viles used remains, but many of the more valuable items, including artwork, are gone. Then there is the discussion about what to do about the water-damaged 1930s French wallpaper in the large dining room.
Johnston said various committees have been set up to decide on the types of work to be done on the house, the grounds and the rest of the property. And despite the foundation’s nonprofit status, Johnston said it will pay property taxes to the city, just as Viles wished.
“We have to do a fair amount of upkeep and additions to the property,” Johnston said. So far, engineers have been called in to assess everything and make recommendations.
He said he can hardly wait “to see this house come alive.”
The house seems a little quiet without its mistress sitting in her favorite chair, calling her dog — always named Otto — and reaching out for the telephone and welcoming visitors.
“She would go up the stairs two or three at a time when she was 91 and 92,” West recalled. Then a fall kept Viles on the first floor and confined to the house for more time than she liked.
West smiles constantly when she talks of the foundation projects. “That’ll be exciting, to bring it back and have life in the house again,” she said.
The foundation was formed in 1990. It has made contributions to a variety of causes, most of them in the Augusta area, including MaineGeneral Medical Center, the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care, the Maine State Museum, Kennebec Valley YMCA, Lithgow Public Library, Maine State Museum and others.
The property, which has 444 feet of frontage on Stone Street and 3,418 feet of frontage along Cony Street Extension, is valued for tax purposes by the city at $608,000, because 64 acres are classified under the Tree Growth program. The entire property at one time was a producing apple orchard.
State historian Earle Shettleworth, who researched the house for a presentation in May 2000, said the 1847 house originally was erected in an Italianate style and then redesigned in a neo-Greek Revival style in 1930 after William P. Viles bought the home. He had the home enlarged and a brick facing installed. Elsie Pike Viles lived in the Daniel Cony Weston House on Stone Street from 1955 until her death March 9, 2013.