A Model for Historic House Museums

A Model for Historic House Museums

When Carter's Grove Plantation, an 18th century Virginia mansion that had been owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for almost 40 years, was acquired by an Internet entrepreneur, it might have been interpreted as just another takeover by dot-com money.

But, in fact, the sale was exemplary of a successful new strategy within the preservation movement: the return of some historic house museums to productive private use as a way to ensure the buildings' long-term viability.

Historic houses and buildings like Carter's Grove are a vital part of America's communities. They are the tangible reminders of our history .

The bicentennial celebration in 1976 revitalized Americans' patriotic spirit, generating enthusiasm for preserving these structures. Across the country people came together to save old homes, schools, firehouses, farms and country estates from the wrecking ball. Over time, many of the buildings became historic house museums with trained staff, public programs and tours.

The problem is that now, many of those museums are struggling to attract visitors, to maintain the properties, and to make ends meet.

Until now, historic buildings have been preserved strictly for the buildings' sake. But that has led to a troubling surplus of sites that are underused and hopelessly disconnected from their communities. With modern competition from amusement parks, aquariums and interactive diversions, historic houses run by nonprofit organizations purely as museums face uncertain futures. These monuments need to be "repurposed" to be revitalized.

The time has come to think outside the house-tour box and consider new paradigms to preserve historic buildings. Colonial Williamsburg, which in 2003 had closed Carter's Grove to the public because it was no longer financially sustainable, reassessed the plantation's needs in a way that should serve as a model for other historic house museums across the nation.

The process was a holistic one that sorted out the best uses for the buildings and the grounds and applied an innovative and responsible approach to preservation. Its buyer, Halsey Minor, who founded an Internet publishing company, agreed to a conservation easement that will prohibit commercial and residential development and preserve the mansion and archaeological sites on the property.

Minor purchased the mansion and 400-acre property for $15.3 million. He intends to use the site as a residence and as a center for a thoroughbred horse breeding program. Colonial Williamsburg, in turn, will use the proceeds of the sale for its educational programs, including expansion of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

Researchers estimate that there are between 8,000 and 15,000 historic house museums in the United States, and the number is growing. Few will ever approach the revered status of Mount Vernon or Monticello.

The significance of most historic houses is far more modest. They are the mansions, plantations, cottages and vacation retreats of our earliest settlers, lovingly protected by local people who care about our nation's rich past.

And they are worth saving. Preservation is important - vital, in fact - if we as a nation are to retain authentic examples of history, culture and place. Preservationists are realizing that these historic structures can be used for other purposes while maintaining their significance and structure, and in most cases, some public access.

In Philadelphia, six struggling historic house museums recently volunteered to participate in the Living Legacy Alternative Stewardship Project funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the William Penn Foundation. Keeping long-term preservation the priority, the project helped shepherd these properties toward alternative uses such as office space, art centers and nature sites.

In her new book "New Solutions for House Museums," preservation consultant Donna Ann Harris chronicles how a dozen sites in the U.S. converted into community-centered spaces like art galleries, bed- and-breakfasts and conference buildings, used and appreciated by the public daily.

As more communities recognize the perilous future facing their historic house museums, more are joining the conversation of conversion, hoping to discover innovative ways to improve the interpretation, access and community involvement of their significant buildings.

Marian Godfrey (mariangodfrey @pewtrusts.org) is managing director of culture and civic initiatives at The Pew Charitable Trusts. Barbara Silberman (bwsilberman@yahoo.com) is principal at Heritage Partners Consulting and consultant to the Living Legacy Alternative Stewardship Project.