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Historic House Museums: Struggling for Survival 

12-09-2015 17:35

The first impulse of many communities is to protect and honor their important buildings by turning them into historic house museums. As a result, a plethora of such museums dot the countryside.

In a 1989 report prepared for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Gerald A. George estimated that more than 5,000 historic properties across the United States have been set aside for exhibition to the visiting public. That translates into a house museum in one out of every three counties in America, with a new one opening every 3-1/2 days.

The organizational profile of the groups that operate these buildings for the public benefit is also sobering. Nearly 80 percent have cash operating budgets of less than $50,000 per year, and 65 percent employ no full-time paid staff. To quote from the George study,

"Historic property museums, particularly the small, volunteer operations that predominate, need basic assistance with almost everything: maintenance, restoration, conservation, interpretation, promotion, and overall management in how to sustain themselves."1

The challenge of sustaining historic houses is becoming critical. While these cultural institutions endeavor to become more relevant and useful to their communities, traditional sources of financial and volunteer staff support are diminishing.

The Historic House Museum Challenge Grant Program, a program of The Pew Charitable Trusts that funded capital projects at historic houses in Philadelphia from 1992-1996, found that 54 percent of the matching funds raised for projects ending in 1996 came from government granting agencies (compared to 25 percent from individuals and 4 percent from foundations).

At the same time, as the volunteers whose efforts and vision sustained these houses in the 1960s and 70s are aging, younger people are not thronging to fill the void, and volunteer resources fall short of the demand for their services.

An indicator of this growing pressure is that many organizations that own historic house museums are spinning them off -- among them the State of Indiana and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA). The Chicago Architecture Foundation turned over the property for which it was founded -- the Glessner House (H. H. Richardson, 1885-87) -- to the Prairie Avenue Museums.

The states of New Jersey and Ohio recently closed historic houses in their care, presumably waiting for better financial times. When asked why the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission "spun off" properties in recent years, a commissioner simply answered, "Money." This is the crux of the issue -- we cannot as a society afford as many historic house museums as we once could, nor does it seem that today`s society wants to afford so many.

This article suggests some options for the stewards of historic house museums to consider when they find themselves unable to provide appropriately for the primary object in their care, i.e., the historic house, or for other items in their collections and determine that the public no longer benefits from the existence of the property as a historic house museum. They must face difficult decisions about the future viability of the site and the future preservation of the structure.

Although the organization responsible for the property may decide to go out of business, the disposition of the building and the collections it houses must still be resolved. Working in close consultation with its attorney, accountant, and other professionals to make an appropriate decision, the organization will need to examine such questions as how it legally holds the property, the nature of the organization, how it was established, and whether or not there is a risk of legal action or community backlash to various disposition options.

In the case of historic house museums, the process is complex since the building and its component spaces and architectural details are part of the collection. In much the same way that museum professionals try to place a deaccessioned museum object in another museum before selling it on the open market, preservation professionals have an ethical and fiduciary responsibility to try to see that the building, its spaces and architectural components remain in the public trust.

An option borrowed from the for-profit sector is mergers or consolidations. Nonprofit organizations, like many for-profit corporations, are considering mergers or consolidations as a legitimate response to financial challenges. Stephen Urice, Director of The Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, writes:

In a merger, two or more institutions combine their assets (and their liabilities) with one of the constituent parties surviving the process. In a consolidation, an entirely new organization is created by the coming together of two or more institutions: the constituent organizations cease to exist.2

Ten years ago, for example, the Peabody Museum of Salem successfully merged with the financially troubled China Trade Museum. The Peabody Museum took on the China Trade Museum`s collections, and added their director to the Peabody staff as a curator of the collection. The house was turned over to a nonprofit group that wanted to try their hand at operating the site.

Created in much the same way as mergers, consolidations can free organizations to create something bigger, more exciting and relevant than what currently exists. Two weak organizations do not necessarily combine to make one strong one. Through careful planning, it must be determined if a new organization could fill the niche served by both predecessors, plus achieve more.

Another option is entering into a co-stewardship or management agreement with another nonprofit to manage the historic house museum. This is an option which the National Trust for Historic Preservation has followed for many years.

In the early 1980s, the National Trust grappled with the problem of sustaining operations at its historic houses and arrived at the solution of entering into co-stewardship agreements with local property councils.

Now, about half the National Trust`s historic sites are co-stewardship properties, and it is clearly the direction of the future. Under a co-stewardship arrangement, a community-based nonprofit corporation enters into a legal agreement with the National Trust to manage the property.

Cliveden, a National Trust historic site, is a co-stewardship property. Cliveden`s co-stewardship agreement consists of three legal documents: a lease, a cooperative agreement and a loan form for the collection. The co-stewardship agreement is renewed at specified intervals, in this case every five years.

For Cliveden, this is a wonderful arrangement, allowing the house to have a local governing board which is more successful raising money for a local site than a staff in Washington. The local board can also respond more directly to community needs. In exchange, Cliveden benefits enormously from the technical assistance and higher profile of being a National Trust historic site. The partnership works.

A variation of a co-stewardship agreement is a management agreement. The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, itself a co-stewardship property of the National Trust, is currently in negotiation to manage the Robie House, a Frank Lloyd Wright building owned by the University of Chicago.

In this case, the University will retain ownership of the property, either placing it on long-term loan to the National Trust and entering into a long-term management agreement with the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation, or placing it on long-term loan directly to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio with terms including a management agreement. As they would for a merger, the Home and Studio board and staff are carefully planning how a two-party or three-party management agreement will work.

A fourth option takes its cue from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA). SPNEA currently owns and preserves eleven study houses. These historic sites, with live-in caretakers, are open only by special appointment. The houses are preserved to SPNEA standards by their own technical service team.

Open for interpretation upon request, the houses serve connoisseurs of architecture and antiques and scholars, and are sometimes used for community events. These sites do not, however, require the high operating overhead and staffing necessary to open the house to the public on a regular basis.

The study house model is appropriate for historic houses that receive fewer than 2,500 visitors per year and are either in a geographical area rich with historic house museum properties or one with a population too small to sustain full-blown museum operations. Historic house museums open only by appointment or only a few hours each week essentially fall into this category.

Larger institutions in close proximity might enter into management agreements with the organizations responsible for potential study houses, resulting in management efficiencies for curatorial or tour-booking services and administration while providing professional stewardship of the house.

Under the study house scenario, the owner organization provides baseline maintenance and security, as well as public access upon request. Perhaps this is the architectural equivalent of placing museum objects in collections storage. In this way, important buildings can be preserved for the public without selling them on the open market and without subjecting them to the wear and tear of struggles to secure funds through income-earning ventures.

The study house model might encourage more financially viable organizations to consider taking on smaller, struggling house museums, and ultimately reduce the number of organizations struggling to attract the same grant dollars and visitors.

Another option is to change the use of, or adaptively use, the property. The most common suggestions for adaptively using historic house museums are special event or meeting facilities, bed-and-breakfast inns, restaurants, and professional offices.

The 1863 Park-McCullough House in North Bennington, Vermont, is a fine example of an Empire-style mansion. Family members and long-time supporters have volunteered many hours to sustain operations as a traditional historic house museum, its board wants to do the right thing and fulfill its fiduciary responsibility, and local professionals want to see the museum`s multi-generational collection preserved in context.

Facing closure of the museum for economic reasons, the board several years ago entered into a dialogue with The Landmark Trust (USA), Inc. This new United States branch of The Landmark Trust in England provides tourist accommodations in landmark properties, completing as its first project Naulakha, Rudyard Kipling`s house in Brattleboro, Vermont.

When the Park-McCullough House board first learned about the project, they hopefully assumed that The Landmark Trust (USA) would pay to maintain or restore the house, but found that the opposite is true -- the Landmark Trust now requests new sites to provide the funds for restoration in order to take on the project.

With the encouragement of traditional professional organizations affirming the site`s importance, the Park-McCullough board has chosen to explore options other than The Landmark Trust (USA) alternative.

Like the Park-McCullough House, many historic houses seek financial solutions by allowing alternative uses that complement the museum functions.

The Highlands, in Ft. Washington, Pennsylvania, regularly rents out its 18th-century grounds and unfurnished Georgian-style mansion to groups for parties, weddings, and other special events.

Fifty-two members of the 150-member Tri-State Coalition of Historic Places, a consortium of historic house museums in the greater Philadelphia area, have published Special Places: A Guide for Rental of Historic Sites in the Delaware Valley in order to market these alternative uses. Outside use generally does not displace the traditional museum functions of guided tours and exhibits, but is vying to become the dominant business for some small historic houses. Often alternative uses serve more people than traditional guided tours and museum-sponsored special events.

The final option -- usually a last resort -- is selling the property on the open market with protective covenants. A 1982 Historic Preservation magazine article titled "Making Properties Pay Their Way" describes SPNEA`s deaccessioning of historic properties, "reducing its roster of historic sites from a high of 64 to a more manageable 40 properties."3

SPNEA accomplished this through its Stewardship Program, which protects more than 40 privately owned historic properties and actively seeks to place preservation restrictions on important buildings throughout New England.

Preservation easements are permanent legal rights granted by the owner of a property to a qualified organization to protect against undesirable development or alteration. Easements can prohibit modification of the significant features, changes in usage, or subdivision of the property.

Once imposed, a preservation easement remains attached to the property, in effect protecting the site permanently.

One of the properties "deaccessioned" by SPNEA in 1982 was the Merrill Inn, a tavern in East Lee, Massachusetts. Built in 1794, it was a private home until 1817, and became a stagecoach inn by 1866.

In 1980, SPNEA sold the house to new owners with protective covenants to insure that the facade and selected interior spaces, such as the Tavern Room, colonial bar, false grain painting, smoke painting, and other interior details would be preserved.

The new owners have operated the Merrill Inn as a bed-and-breakfast successfully for the past 14 years, opening the house in December to the general public as part of a community house tour. In this case, the covenants were retained by SPNEA when it sold the property.

The National Trust`s Gifts of Heritage Program offers another approach to protecting historic properties in private ownership. Houses of architectural or historic significance can be donated to the National Trust.

Once the Trust takes possession of the property, a comprehensive protective plan for building(s) and grounds is developed and a preservation-minded buyer is found. Preservation easements protect significant elements of the property and a portion of the sale proceeds is earmarked for the specific purpose of maintaining the easement, including regular inspections and litigation if necessary.

Through the Gifts of Heritage program, Bachelor`s Hope, a 1759 brick manor house and 300-acre farm in St. Mary`s County, Maryland, was purchased and lovingly maintained by a young couple as their family home.

To summarize, a variety of models can be followed when tough financial decisions call for a substantial change in the operation of a historic house museum. Simply closing the door and walking away is not a viable option.

Unlike a building owned by an individual, a historic site owned by a nonprofit is held in the public trust in the same way a museum holds objects in its collection. Stewards of historic sites have a responsibility to insure the preservation of the actual structure for the future.

The way in which they do this may be by finding another organization to manage the site, turning it into a study house, or finding an alternative use, depending on what is appropriate for the site.

In any case, the historic site should be protected against deterioration or destruction, which could mean finding a live-in caretaker for the site or placing restrictive covenants on historical details and selling the building on the open market.

At a time when America`s cities and states are recognizing that tourism may become our nation`s major industry, the key components to that vision -- historic houses -- are struggling for survival.

Past strategies for providing funds to operate these houses are no longer adequate. Management skills that worked in the past may not be appropriate for houses that operate special event location businesses on the side.

If protected responsibly, historic houses can still be interpreted and can still support the local economy -- and operate for the public benefit -- through historic markers, tours coordinated for special occasions, and publications. If closed without careful planning, however, stewards for these houses will be tossing away valuable cultural and financial assets. Notes

  1. Gerald George, "Proposed Plan Historic Properties Program" (unpublished, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1989), p. 14.
  2. Stephen K. Urice, "When Museums Decide to Merge: Examining Some Practicalities" (Philadelphia: ALI ABA Proceedings, 1993), p. 2.
  3. Robert Campbell, "Making Properties Pay Their Way," Historic Preservation Magazine (January/February, 1982), p. 27.

Publication Date: Summer 1996


Author(s):Jennifer Esler

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