What To Do With These Old Houses (Spring 2008 Trust Magazine briefing)

What To Do With These Old Houses (Spring 2008 Trust Magazine briefing)

Mount Vernon, the House of Seven Gables, Hearst Castle: We have read about these historic houses, and maybe even visited them. Most likely, we have also been to one of the other historic houses in America—there may be as many as 15,000, more than four for every county in the country. Some thrive, but many are barely solvent, scarcely surviving in upkeep or relevance. The following articles describe how some redefined their role in the community—and thus stayed true to their mission and purpose.

By Marian Godfrey and Barbara Silberman

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, the sale might have been interpreted as just another takeover by dot-com money.

In fact, however, the change of ownership 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 problem is that, now, many of their caretakers are struggling to attract visitors, maintain the properties and 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, purchased the mansion and 400-acre property for $15.3 million, intending to use the site as a residence and a center for a thoroughbred-horse breeding program.

He also agreed to a conservation easement that will prohibit commercial and residential development and preserve the mansion and archaeological sites on the property. Colonial Williamsburg, in turn, will use the proceeds of the sale for its educational programs, including expansion of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

Although some historic houses, like Mount Vernon or Monticello, have achieved revered status, the significance of most 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, the Living Legacy Alternative Stewardship Project, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the William Penn Foundation, is helping foster the idea of alternative uses such as office space, art centers and nature sites, keeping long-term preservation the priority.

In her book New Solutions for House Museums, preservation consultant Donna Ann Harris documents how a dozen sites in the United States and Canada were 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, accessibility and community involvement of their significant buildings.

This piece is slightly condensed from its appearance on the opinion page of The (Norfolk, Va.) Virginian- Pilot & The Ledger-Star in January. Marian Godfrey is managing director of the Culture program at Pew. Barbara Silberman is a principal at Heritage Partners Consulting and consultant to the Living Legacy Alternative Stewardship Project.

* * *

By Tanya Barrientos

On the second floor of historic Mill Grove estate, the first American home of the naturalist and painter John James Audubon, which is set in bucolic eastern Pennsylvania, two pre-teens are paying little attention to history.

They've already peered into the small room across the hall—Audubon's bedchamber—to see the period furniture, the artist's sketches and the taxidermy bird specimens perched on shelves and dangling from the ceiling by string. Now they're coloring at a large table in another room that makes no attempt whatsoever at being historically accurate. And director Jean Bochnowski couldn't be happier.

“This is exactly how we want the house to be used,” Bochnowski says. In fact, if everything goes according to plan, the interior of this historic house museum will be transformed into a well-equipped arts center, with Audubon's famous paintings on display next door at a state-of-the-art museum inside the renovated barn.

“We live in a different world these days,” Bochnowski says. “People are used to interacting with their environment, and leading visitors on a lookbut- don't-touch house tour simply doesn't work anymore.”

That's been clear to many preservation experts for some time now—at least since 1999, when Barbara Silberman, a specialist in historic sites and museums, first uttered the controversial statement—“there are too many historic house museums”—at a national conference of the American Association for State and Local History.

“The notion bordered on radical at the time,” Silberman says, “because people tend to think responsible preservation is synonymous with creating house museums. But the painful truth is that historic homes used strictly as museums in towns and cities across America are in peril.”

Struggling with unrelenting maintenance costs, dwindling funds, sagging visitor attendance and an aging cadre of staff and volunteers, they are facing an uncertain future. And experts have come to believe that changing the way they are used in the future may be the only way to protect their pasts.

“Americans love to save old buildings,” says James Vaughan, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's vice president for stewardship of historic sites. “But a lot of them are not nationally significant enough to draw the sort of attendance to make them financially sustainable.”

Of course, Vaughan and other preservation professionals believe saving historical architecture from the wrecking ball is critical.

“They are tangible reminders of the past traditions and culture of our country,” he says. These small gems tell the often-overlooked story of domestic history. They are the childhood homes of politicians. The stately houses of industrial magnates. The mansions, plantations, cottages and vacation retreats of people who made a mark. Each lovingly protected by people who truly care—but, more often, sorely disconnected from the beating heart of the community.

Since America's bicentennial, there's been an explosion of historic house museums. A few are nationally significant. But, Vaughan notes, “most are local in interest and aren't going to survive by attracting tourists from across the country.”

Which means they may not survive at all.

The problem is national in scope. But in historic centers such as Philadelphia, it's particularly acute—prompting the Living Legacy Alternative Stewardship Project, sponsored by the William Penn Foundation and Pew. In 2000, Pew's Heritage Philadelphia Program discovered more than 300 historic house museums in the Philadelphia region alone. Fewer than 10 percent of those have endowments of any size, and more than 80 percent are facing preservation and maintenance costs of about $1 million each, while their operating budgets average only $100,000.

If nothing changes within the next decade, the research suggests, dozens will be left with no caretakers, no money and no plans for rescue.

Change is already happening elsewhere, with varying results.

The sale of Carter's Grove Plantation by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation actually won support from preservation organizations as respected as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and APVA Preservation Virginia— mainly because Williamsburg vowed to sell only to a private buyer who would preserve the estate and not use it for residential or commercial development.

In 2000, the boyhood home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Alexandria Va., was sold to a local couple as a private residence.  In New York's historic Hudson River Valley, Montgomery Place Historic Estate is in the midst of a five-year strategic plan to create and implement a new interpretive plan for the 19th-century mansion and grounds.

At other venues across the nation, caretakers are talking about transforming their historic houses into bed-and-breakfasts or community centers or wedding facilities.

Proponents call such ideas “alternative stewardship.” They say that embracing the possibility of establishing management partnerships, leasing the property or even selling to a private entity is necessary in a world where house museums are forced to compete with theme parks and all sorts of high-tech leisure-time activities. Over the long term, the thinking goes, historic buildings are better served if they can serve the public. In fact, being creative is the responsible thing to do.

But do the organizations have the leadership and knowledge to take action?

While some museum boards, trustees and other stakeholders may clearly see what is not working, the prospect of maneuvering a dramatic change can be daunting.

“People are emotionally attached to these houses,” says preservation consultant Donna Ann Harris. “If somebody has worked at the site for 30 years, the thought of changing everything might feel like the rug is being pulled out from under them.”

To help offset that fear, Mill Grove director Bochnowski and the site's board of trustees volunteered to participate in the Living Legacy project. They took part in the complex process of considering new uses and ultimately were reinvigorated by the change.

Owned by Philadelphia's suburban Montgomery County government and managed by the National Audubon Society, Mill Grove is an 18th-century, fieldstone farmhouse perched on a leafy bluff overlooking the Perkiomen Creek. The 175-acre estate includes the main house, a barn and five miles of walking trails. But the house's interior has not been historically accurate for at least 40 years, and the cost of meticulously restoring the 1765 structure would be astronomical.

As part of the project, Bochnowski and board members spent some five months visiting other historical house museums, learning the administrative details of alternative stewardship and weighing their options.

“The tours convinced us we didn't want to be a museum anymore, where people just walk in and stand passively,” Bochnowski says. “We agreed that, given John Audubon's role as a conservationist, the interior of the house wasn't as important as the exterior. Especially since there's something about how Mill Grove sits in this environment that touches people, there's a majesty about it.”

One part of the historic Mill Grove home that visitors insist on seeing, she says, is the re-creation of Audubon's bedroom. After that, their attention wanes.

“So we decided we'd keep the bedroom as it is and turn the rest of the house into an art center,” she says. “We want it to be a vibrant place with art classes, visiting exhibitions, an artist in residence. We think it speaks to Audubon's legacy. Learning about nature through art.”

Plans call for the original Audubon drawings and paintings owned by the center, and currently displayed inside the house, to be permanently moved next door to a three-story barn that will be remodeled into a climate-controlled museum, tying the art into a larger story of nature conservancy.

“We have a sense that this plan would make John happy,” she says.

A handful of other historic house museums have already made successful transitions to new uses. The 1800 House, owned and operated by the Nantucket Historical Association, is one. Shuttered since 1997, it was reopened in 2005 as a “lifelong-learning” center, where 18th- and 19-thcentury crafts such as furniture-making, embroidery and scrimshaw are taught.

Sometimes a resurrection doesn't require an extreme makeover, just a correction in vision.

“I like to point to Olana as an example of a house museum that beat the odds,” says Sara Johns Griffen, president of the Olana Partnership, the nonprofit arm of the Olana State Historical Society in Hudson, N.Y., which owns and operates the historic home of Frederic E. Church, the 19th-century landscape painter who was instrumental in the Hudson River School art movement.

Instead of revamping the elaborate Persian-style mansion into a hotel or community center, Griffen says, the board agreed to expand the house's interpretation. “We decided to use Olana to tell the story of Frederic Church and the wider story of American painting.” Now, Griffen says, the house sponsors visiting art exhibitions and educational programs while still functioning primarily as a historical museum.

“The first obligation of responsible stewardship is to protect the site,” she says. “And if you can do that while giving it a wider public purpose, why not?”

Tanya Barrientos, a 2001 Pew Fellow in the Arts, was a freelancer when she wrote this piece for Pew. A former columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, she is now a development writer at the National Constitution Center.


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