House Museums and Ultimate Use

During the National Preservation Conference for the last many years, Fridays are the busiest day, beginning at 7:15 AM with breakfast with the Site Council Chairs and Trust President Dick Moe. I represent both the Gaylord Building and the Farnsworth House. The former has a decent endowment while the latter does not, and of course the economic climate was at the top of the agenda for all 29 of the Trust sites.

Gaylord Building 2004

This is always a fascinating meeting, especially since the Kykuit Conference, where the Trust sites took the “beyond the velvet ropes” step, encouraging Boards and staff at historic sites to go beyond the “museum” model for historic houses. This is of course a great interest of mine as readers of this blog will know. I have been proposing to the Trust for several years the idea of a national database of all historic sites that could be used for corporate meetings, institutional retreats, filming, and a whole variety of events. These things all happen of course on an individual Trust property level, but a national database – perhaps licensed to other sites as well – could be a powerful funding tool.

The historic house museum, based on tourism and ticket sales, has NEVER made sense in all of history, unless the tickets are very high in price (Biltmore), or an incredible number of tourists are pushed through (Fallingwater), or a gift shop regularly trebles the income per visitor versus ticket sales (Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio). The Gaylord Building has relied on its endowment, even though it has a paying tenant (the Public Landing Restaurant). The Farnsworth House is working on merchandising, as well as offering more expensive “restoration tours.”

Speaking of which, Joan Mercuri explained to me the thinking at Robie House, which is taking the strange and unusual step of closing completely to try to complete the last $5 million of their restoration. Joan explained that many visitors were upset that they couldn’t see certain things during restoration. She also stressed that some of the decisions regarding how many tours would be available – once a week this coming year, and none from November ’09 to April ’10 – were not final and they would possibly open more. She also talked about cell phone tours, which are a growing media for heritage tourism and interpretation. So that made some sense, and obviously there are lots of hard feelings among docents, but I haven’t read the Hyde Park Herald so I don’t understand the infighting. If it were up to me, I would still be more open during the restoration – that is what we are doing at Farnsworth – but it isn’t up to me. I suppose you could do exterior tours during intensive interior renovation. That will essentially be the situation at the Farnsworth House during certain points in the rehab. At Robie House that is an even more obvious strategy, since like Farnsworth, much of the design brilliance is visible from the exterior.

The other fascinating aspect of being at the Site Councils meetings at the National Trust is the Trust’s wise commitment to recognizing the end of the house museum as we know it. They have changed Boards who couldn’t see that end, and they will continue to do so. Sites will look for new types of community outreach and development and measure success not based on visitors but a more comprehensive assessment. Most importantly, we hope to show the rest of the nation that some sites have to transition – become private sites again as they once were. There are too many house museums, a fact the Trust recognized almost a decade ago. I’m glad we are being creative at the Farnsworth House and I am glad the Gaylord Building was ALWAYS an adaptive re-use project with a commercial component. Because that is the only preservation that is sustainable.

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2 Responses to “House Museums and Ultimate Use”

  1. kmmc048 Says:

    Vince,

    As a former Robie House volunteer, I found your post about the National Preservation Conference very informative.

    I recently read the Spring 2008 issue of the Forum Journal, examining sustainable business models for historic sites, all in an effort to better understand the context in which the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust was planning the future of the Robie House. I could not agree with you more that the boards charged with maintaining historic sites must consider innovative and diverse uses of their resources in order to maintain the relevance of their sites to the general public.

    However, I and a number of the Robie House volunteers believe that a building with the architectural importance of the Robie House must, as the most significant part of its operations, provide the maximum possible level of access to the general public through opportunities for public tours. In my view, general public access to a building like the Robie House should not be sacrificed in favor of “corporate meetings, institutional retreats, filming, and a whole variety of events” provided general public access is a sustainable business model. Other innovative and diverse uses should, of course, be considered as a complement to, but not as a replacement for, general public access.

    The articles in the Forum Journal make a convincing argument that most historic sites need to move “beyond the velvet ropes.” I am curious, however, about your view on the relevance of the recommendations in the Forum Journal for sites like the Robie House. The Robie House is not a typical historic site. Architects selected the Robie House as one of the ten most important examples of American architecture in the 20th Century. Moreover, the Robie House was recently placed on a list of potential nominees by the U.S. Interior Department for recognition as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The only historic home in the U.S. that is currently a World Heritage Site is Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia. As you have noted in prior posts, the Robie House is of world-wide significance as evidenced by the thousands of European and Asian visitors each year.

    In addition, the Robie House is located in a major urban center and in the middle of one of the preeminent universities in the world. The city of Chicago and the University of Chicago are a mecca for visitors from around the world. The business model applicable to such a building should surely differ from the business model of a less significant site with largely local or regional interest. Despite the international architectural importance of the Farnsworth House, for example, its location alone requires a different business model for it to be sustainable.

    In closing, I was pleased to read of your belief that general public tours should be more available during the restoration of the Robie House and that Joan Mercuri was apparently open to the idea. I hope that the expression of this position by you and other people actively involved in the preservation movement will be more successful in convincing the Preservation Trust to expand public access during the restoration than have the efforts of the volunteers to date.

    David Cameron

  2. Here Eat This! House Museums and Ultimate Use II « Time Tells Says:

    […] the past I have written about the challenge of house museums.  See House Museums and Ultimate Use.  Almost a decade ago, the National Trust – which was basically created by Congress in the 1940s […]

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