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Resident Curators: Private Stewards of Publicly Owned Historic Houses 

12-09-2015 17:35

It’s a problem all too familiar to state parks administrators. The parkland purchased or donated to allow the public to enjoy the outdoors happens to have a building on it—a building that’s too rundown to rent out or use, too costly to repair, and too historic to demolish. Beginning in the 1960s, Park City, a depressed former mining town, found a new identity as a ski resort. Condos and commercial strips sprang up to serve weekend visitors and seasonal residents. And Park Avenue, once a quiet residential street, was increasingly taken over by commercial development. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources faced this dilemma hundreds of times over in the early 1980s.

The Maryland Historical Trust, the state historic preservation office, had produced an inventory of some 400 state-owned structures of historical interest. “In the 1970s and 80s, there were liberal amounts of money available for land acquisition,” recalls Ross Kimmel, the supervisor of cultural resources management at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, “but they didn’t pay attention to the old buildings. We were floundering around with a huge inventory of historic properties and no idea of what to do with them.” Then Ross Kimmel met Larry and Agnes Bartlett. They would become Maryland’s first resident curators, setting the precedent for a mutually beneficial arrangement that by now has resulted in the restoration of 40 state-owned historic properties at virtually no cost to taxpayers.

The Bartletts were planning their retirement and wanted to buy an old house in the country. They had found a fixer-upper they liked, but it was owned by the state and unavailable for purchase. Kimmel went to look at the house, met the Bartletts, and in time worked out an agreement that allows the Bartletts to live in the house for the rest of their lives in exchange for restoring and maintaining it. Today, “the place is a real showplace,” Kimmel says. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful concept,” says Kim Burdick, a Delaware-based consultant who last winter organized a workshop on resident curatorship. “But,” she adds, “it’s an emerging idea.”

To date Massachusetts is the only other state with a well-established resident curatorship program. New York is exploring the notion as a possible solution to the problem of restoring the Lydig-Hoyt House in Hyde Park, an elaborate structure designed by Calvert Vaux that needs some $4 million in repairs and restoration, according to J. Winthrop Aldrich, the deputy commissioner for historic preservation. The state of Delaware is working with Preservation Delaware to develop the procedures, policies, and standards needed to launch a resident curatorship program. “We think it solves a lot of problems,” says Cara Blume of the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation. “This is a way for us to bring [targeted buildings] back to the standards we’ve established for historic properties.”

In Maryland a resident curatorship begins with the identification of suitable buildings by the Forest and Park Service in cooperation with the Maryland Historical Trust. Would-be curators submit proposals that include a detailed five-year plan for the restoration work, which must be completed in accordance with The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. They must prove themselves qualified to supervise the restoration and submit a financial disclosure statement to show they have the wherewithal to pay for it. The applications are juried by the Department of Natural Resources and the Historical Trust. A curatorship agreement, originally drawn up 12 years ago by the assistant attorney general, spells out expectations and responsibilities very carefully. Despite the demands of the job, applicants are plentiful. While there is no rule of thumb about who will work out—”Some are old, some young, all different,” Kimmel says—all can expect to sink at least $100,000 into their new home. Many recoup some of the money as a charitable contribution on their income taxes. The curators submit annual accounts of time and money invested. In 1998, Kimmel says, resident curators contributed well over $740,000 to the restoration and maintenance of publicly owned historic properties.

Publication Date: September/October 1999

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Author(s):Rachel S. Cox

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