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Posted January 31, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Weather vane cause for controversy in Winchester
By Alex Bridges -- Daily Staff Writer
WINCHESTER -- Old Jake should stay in its hometown, say some current and former residents who want to keep the historic weather vane in the city.
The 6-foot-tall copper weathervane stood atop the building at 3 S. Braddock St. housing the Charley Rouss Volunteer Fire Company since the late 1800s. But the annual cost to insure the piece of historic memorabilia became too much for the company to spend. Officials with Rouss sought buyers for the figure as early as the spring, but to no avail.
Rouss began working with Sotheby's in the spring, and the auctioneer put the weathervane up for bid last weekend as part of its Important Americana sale. Sotheby's estimated the bidding price for the piece at $3 million to $5 million. Last Saturday, the bids topped out at $2.1 million and the piece did not sell. Sotheby's has a 60-day contract to continue to try to sell Old Jake, possibly to a private buyer.
But antique dealers Chip and Guylaine Pullen want Old Jake to stay in Winchester -- regardless of who buys it. The Pullens own GNC Antiques at 326 S. Braddock St., a few blocks south of the fire station.
"It's not a question of who owns it: We know they own it and that's fine," Chip Pullen said. "It's not a question of whether they have the right, legally, to do anything with it. They do."
"The thing is that it's a piece of Winchester," he added. "It's part of the skyline."
But over the years, the station could not continue to pay the $40,000 needed to insure the artifact, said Chief Tim Clark.
"We would love to [take care of Old Jake], but there's no way we can take a minimum of $40,000 out of our budget just for insurance," Clark said. "And it all goes back to the same thing, and I've told numerous people this: We are members and officers of the Charley Rouss Fire Company. We are a fire company. That's what we want to do. We don't want to be a museum."
The chief said only a few people appear opposed to the fire company's efforts to sell Old Jake. Most of those against the sale have not donated money to the volunteer station, he said. Of the 450 donations received by the company in its last fundraising campaign, 297 came from repeat contributors, according to Clark.
He also noted that no one has formally addressed the fire company about the sale or starting a campaign to keep Old Jake in Winchester.
"We put this out in the first part of June," Clark said. "It was our opinion no one was interested so we're movin' on."
But the chief remained open to suggestions and expressed an interest in hearing from people like the Pullens.
"If anybody's interested in talking to us about it ... all they need to do is make a phone call and I'm sure we could set up an appointment to meet with them," Clark said.
Mrs. Pullen said the company should have asked for donations from the community to help pay for the insurance on Old Jake.
"I'm sure people would've come forward and helped them out," she said. "They just didn't give the public a chance to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, we can do something' [to help]."
The store owner questioned the fire company's motives for selling the artifact. Some earlier published reports stated Rouss planned to use the proceeds from the sale to build a new station. But while Clark acknowledged the station faces space issues in its current site, at no time has the company or its board specifically voted to put the money from any sale into buying a new location. Instead, the likely action would be to put the proceeds in a trust fund and use the interest from that to help pay for maintenance of the station and equipment, Clark said.
Many opponents of the company's efforts to sell Old Jake don't give to the volunteer station, Clark said.
Pullen said he would have started his fight to keep Old Jake locally earlier but didn't in part because his business kept him occupied. But Old Jake's failure to sell at auction last week may help Pullen's campaign, he said.
"I'm talking to my attorney and we're trying to get together an organization to slow down this process and, I don't know if we're going to stop the sale, but we want to make Rouss fire hall know that we don't want it to happen, that we don't want it to go away from this area," Pullen said. "It'd be nice if someone had the money and bought it and kept it here and put it in the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, but it may not happen."
"You know it's a real desirable piece," Pullen added.
While Clark said he remains open-minded to suggestions from the community about how to keep Old Jake in the city, he said no one has formally come to him about their opposition.
The Pullens noted that since they work in the antique business, their motives may be suspect. Pullen said they buy pieces from estates, including family heirlooms. But that's a person's business to sell the items to the dealer, he said.
"I can't help it if people feel they can part with stuff. That's up to them," Pullen said.
"It would be a great asset to [the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley] and that would be the real way to do it and then [the station] could put the reproduction on top," Pullen said, adding that the fire company had not yet put the replica on the roof of its building.
But the museum lacks the funds to pay for the item and continue its upkeep, Clark said, citing discussions with officials from the museum.
"Nobody's said this but Sotheby's is making a lot of money on this deal," Pullen said. "It's in their business to go out and find pieces like this and sell it and talk people into selling it and that's what they did.
But the auction house seemed to be the fairest way to go, Clark said.
"That was the whole purpose of us going through Sotheby's, was the fact that we had a couple people interested in it and instead of us just picking somebody and trying to deal with them independently, we talked to everybody and they said if we go through Sotheby's, this would be the way that everybody would have a fair chance," Clark said.
"Our personal opinion is we would like to keep [Old Jake] here but we do not have the funds, nor the time, effort or the administrative staff to keep it," he said. "Maybe the citizens in Winchester can get together and get a bunch of money together ... we'd be willing to look at anything."
*Contact Alex Bridges at firstname.lastname@example.org
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