Archive for the ‘House Museums’ Category

Commercial and Interpretive

November 15, 2013

I was at a meeting of the National Trust and several citizen preservation groups in Monterey concerned about the future of the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a house museum in Monterey, one of the treasures of California’s Spanish capitol. I blogged about Cooper-Molera two and a half years ago here, and what I said remains true – the site has been largely shuttered due to state budget cuts, cuts which are not going to be reversed.
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When the National Trust announced it was working with a developer to come up with restaurant and other commercial uses at the site, there was a fair amount of community uproar, especially among volunteers who felt the site should stay interpretive. And this debate: “Commercial versus Interpretive” was still active when I was there last month. And it is a false dichotomy. This is NOT an either-or situation. It is a both-and situation.
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As I said in 2011, the site was always commercial and it still is because there is a gift shop on the corner. The barns are currently empty due to code issues, and the site is a hub of inactivity. Commercial uses would not only be interpretively appropriate, they would raise awareness of the site and bring its historical understanding to many more people.

I spoke about my own experience with another National Trust site, the Gaylord Building in Lockport, Illinois. This was the National Trust’s first “adaptive re-use” site and its first industrial building. It was restored by the Donnelley family in the 1980s and half was made a restaurant and the other half a series of interpretive exhibits and museum-type uses.
gaylord f SWs

We did a strategic assessment there about seven or eight years ago and we learned that the building has a split identity – people either saw it as a museum or as a restaurant. And the two never met. The answer was too make the restaurant more interpretive and the interpretive side more commercial. Have more exhibits in the restaurant and a shop in the museum side. This would unite the building’s identity and as I said above, bring the historical message to a much larger audience.
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But the more I thought about it, the more this artificial distinction bothered me. I thought of Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, which I visited about 15 years ago. When you visit, you learn that the tomb of Strongbow in the nave was in fact the site of the most important binding legal agreements in the land through the centuries. Not only was there no separation of commerce and sacred culture, but they were in fact legally bound together. You needed to go to the church to do business. Because that was THE public building.
christchurch ca

If we want to reach the public with historic sites that have a lot to relate about history and architecture and the roots of our shared places, we need to make those places the center of public life. But the preservationist impulse is often the opposite: Save it. Remove it from the world. Hide it. Protect it.
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Why leave your building outside where there is rain and weather and stuff?

This is wrong. As I have well learned running the Global Heritage Fund (join here!)the only way to preserve something over the long term is to make it useful and productive for its community. Then the community will preserve it sustainably over the long term. There is no amount of money that can save a building forever – none, even if you put it indoors somehow and encase it in amber. Everything deteriorates. The only way to truly save something is to make it vital and central to enough people that they will keep investing in it forever.
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Like this submarine. As Mies’s grandson Dirk Lohan noted, it would be ludicrous to have this design in a place that didn’t flood. If it doesn’t get wet, it has no message.

Going back to our friend Strongbow at Christ Church, there is perhaps a Biblical, New testament reference that makes preservation purists want to excise commercial from interpretive, even when you are interpreting a commercial site. Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, right?
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More Father than Son, but my all-time favorite Wyspianski window

Two thoughts there: One, the story proves that commercial transactions in sacred space go back WAY before Strongbow, again probably because it makes the most sense to transact business in the most public of places. Two, if you actually read the passage, it wasn’t just moneychangers – it was also dove (pigeon) sellers, which were used for sacrifice, and a major trope throughout Old and New Testaments is moving away from blood sacrifice.
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Here’s a picture of a Catholic church, so there
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and here is a synagogue
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and a mosque

But even if we go with the religulous approach to preserving something by keeping it free of the Taint of Mammon (good band name), aren’t we diluting its historical message by radically changing its use? The only time Cooper-Molera WASN’T a commercial site was when they made it a museum.
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And what is a museum? Why only the NEWEST use of all! We have had shops and offices and temples and houses for thousands of years. When is the first museum? A little over 200 years ago. Here’s me in that VERY FIRST museum 31 years ago, when the idea of a museum was closer to 170.
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The naked guy behind me is about 10 times older than the idea of a museum

One of the lessons I have struggled to learn my whole life is the virtue of the “both-and”. My dissertation advisor Bob Bruegmann kept admonishing me to get away from dualities, from “either-ors”. So I understand where the fine citizens of Monterey are coming from. I came from there too. I also sought to see the world in dualities and I also sought to throw the dove sellers out of the temple.

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But that supposed “purity” is a false message that garbles and fundamentally alters – not in a good way – the meaning of historic sites. For too long we have conveyed that to be historical is to be unengaged in life. But history DID NOT happen like that – it happened right at the vibrant and completely messed-up center of life. Unless we put our historic sites right into that messy center they will have neither historic nor contemporary validity.

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It’s not Forbidden anymore

Historical Societies

August 22, 2012

with Anthea M. Hartig, PhD

My friend and colleague Dr. Anthea Hartig, who last year became the Executive Director of the California Historical Society, asked the provocative question: What is a Historical Society in the 21st Century? Good question. What does it mean? And what has it meant? I asked for her help answering this question and got it….

Society

The term “Historical Society” strikes one as odd because of the second word: do we need to create a special society for those who are historical or interested in history? Why isn’t everyone? Is it a social group that gathers for fancy dress dinners to hear about each other’s adventures in the past, like an Explorer’s Society or a Wilderness Society? Or, more fairly, a group that gets together socially to share a common interest in exploration or wilderness or history or whatever? There is certainly a sense of exclusion in the use of “Society, ” although strictly speaking there doesn’t have to be – we are all one society, after all. And we share history, presumably.

Preservation organizations often used the word “Society,” such as the pioneering Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (1910) or the 19th-century American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, or more disturbingly, the Society for the Preservation of Negro Spirituals, founded in 1922 in Charleston, South Carolina, which consisted only of white people.

There is an old-timey air to the word “Society”, and that is perhaps why some have abandoned it. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities became Heritage New England within the last decade. The Barry Byrne book I just finished was researched for a decade at the Chicago Historical Society, and then for another five years at the Chicago History Museum, because they changed their name.

Perhaps the implication is that this is a segment of society that cares for historical things. Indeed, people expect a historical society to preserve artifacts of the past, to be an archive, and to accept donations of important (usually) historic items. The Chicago History Museum (Chicago Historical Society for almost 150 years) is a good example. It has collections of everything from costumes and architectural drawings to lowriders and locomotives.

The California Historical Society has a similar mission, although Dr. Hartig has worked to broaden its reach into every corner of “society” in the largest sense. Perhaps we should talk less about Society with a capital “S” and focus more on society with a small “s.”

Archives and Artifacts

Most historical societies have collections of archives and artifacts, and often one of their primary goals is the conservation of those artifacts. Another primary goal is educating the public – the larger “society” – about its shared history, often through the use of those artifacts and archives. This was the point of the excellent new exhibit on the Golden Gate Bridge that Anthea staged at the California Historic Society. Conservation will only happen if people care about their shared heritage, so education and interpretation are essential to the maintenance of archives.

Public and private agencies need to clean their drawers every now and then (so do I come to think of it) and they often look for a receptacle for items no longer current or useful to everyday business, and donate them to historical societies (and museums and archives). For scholars such as us, this is great, because original documents are vital evidence. They help us understand the context of so many aspects of our lives, from bridges and buildings to the formation of institutions and a great variety of public debates.

Now, we have also done research in active public agencies, like municipal landmarks commissions, although since these are not designed for research, it often takes a long lead time, serious preparation and maybe even an FOIA filing. Files that have been transferred to a museum or historical society are much easier to access, because they are designed for it.

The Library of Congress is basically an archive but I think its name helps focus the question here. As a “library,” we expect it to have a lot of books and files. But there is something they have – shared with historical societies and museums – that is even more important for the scholar (or exhibit designer). A library is not a bunch of books but a bunch of finding aids, the most versatile of which we label librarians.

Every historical society has archives and artifacts – the great ones have those items accessible through a series of contexts and analytics. This makes history more accessible, more relevant, and more useful.—especially when then have librarians and free, accessible research libraries like the California Historical Society’s

Exhibits and Education

Most historical societies have exhibits, which differentiates them from those other 19th-century-sounding groups focused on teas and lectures and fora. Exhibits bring the artifacts to the attention of the public, usually making an argument for their interest, relevance, and by extension, their ongoing conservation.

It was the importance of exhibits – and the desire to make those exhibits relevant to a larger portion of “society” that led the Chicago Historical Society to become the Chicago History Museum. It seems clear that successful exhibits and educational programs, especially offsite, are more important than archives to the “museum.” Interestingly, old exhibits are among the hardest thing to preserve. I was hired by the Chicago History Museum to tour the actual sites of five 1932 dioramas they had in the museum, in order to rekindle interest in this older form of exhibition.

About 15 years ago the Milwaukee Public Museum had a fascinating problem. In the 1960s during urban renewal they had saved bits of various buildings as sections of the city were being leveled, and reassembled them inside the museum into a “Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibit. The interpretation of the little street and buildings became pretty irrelevant by the 1980s, when various exhibits were shoehorned in to address the presence of minorities and women in the 19th century. By the 1990s the Museum realized it had better chuck the whole thing out and start over if it was going to properly represent 19th-century Milwaukee. But there was an outcry. A generation had grown up with those fragmentary “real” buildings and didn’t want to lose them. The “inauthentic” indoor street made of fragmentary “real” buildings had itself become an object people wanted to preserve.

Preservation

Many if not most local historical societies were formed not because they had a cache of photographs or files or pioneers’ memoirs but because an important historical building was threatened with demolition. The Milton Historical Society in Milton, Wisconsin, was formed in 1948 to save the old Milton House, the oldest concrete structure in the U.S. and an underground railroad site. The Winfield (IL) Historical Society was formed in 1978 to save Hedges Station. The Historical Society of Glastonbury (CT) was formed in 1935 to save the Gideon Welles House, which they did the following year. The Marion County (OR) Historical Society was founded in 1950 to save the state’s first legislative building, which they failed to do, but finally opened a museum a quarter-century later.


Milton House

The Lyons (CO) Historical Society was formed to keep the old train depot in town and save the local 1881 school as well. A group was formed in Millbrae (CA) in 1970 to save Sixteen Mile House and while they failed, they eventually saved a local landmark that was relocated and became their museum in 1987. Local historical societies save artifacts, and in most cases their largest artifact is their building.

There is of course a problem with this dominant model of housing historical collections in an historic building. The best environments for conserving historic artifacts require the sort of precise climate controls that a.) do not usually exist in historic buildings, b.) actually can interfere with the conservation of the building. To properly care for a house, it shouldn’t have collections; to properly care for collections, they shouldn’t be in a house.

Some do both. The Burlington County (NJ) Historical Society, which includes the 1743 Bard-How house, furnished with 18th century antiques, the James Fenimore Cooper House and the Captain James Lawrence House. The Society also built a modern climate-controlled museum, the Carson Poley Center, behind the houses for its historical and genealogical library.

Place

Let’s go back to that earlier concept, that we are one society and we share a history. Most “historical societies” however, are more particular. They may celebrate and conserve the achievements of one group, like Irish or Inuit or Italian immigrants, or they may commemorate and archive the achievements of laborers, or sports figures, or even public works. Most of them are clearly place-based, collecting and preserving the artifacts and buildings of a city, county, or state.

As preservationists, we know that nothing is more indicative, persuasive and significant in the history of place than its physical legacy of buildings, sites and structures. As preservationists, we also know that our concerns sometimes do not resonate with the whole of “society,” although we are usually in the majority.


This is a preserved place. And a historical society
Maybe “historical societies” are a legacy of an America that was all about building the future. The idea of saving history was so countercultural and antithetical to the true business of American society that you had to secede and create a new, “historical” society. Today of course, we have The Society for Creative Anachronism, which deliberately “lives” in the Europe of 400 years ago, and the extremely popular re-enactors who recreate Civil War and Revolutionary War battles with an incredibly precise concern with accuracy. As National Geographic reported recently, Union soldier’s caps are indigo, not blue, and you may not be able to recover from such an error should you make it.

Are all such “societies” secessions? A desire to escape from the everyday through a role-playing fantasy – Sailor Moon or Professor X or General Meade – from fiction or history? As historians, we treasure the belief that there is a reality and accuracy to our mission, and our method is scientific in that it requires evidence and documentation. Most historical societies were created by volunteers and enthusiasts, and of course most eventually graduate to be institutions that employ historians and curators and conservators. Those are less secessions than specializations.

What’s Next

The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities became Heritage New England, which certainly sounds like a modern heritage conservation organization. The archives and collection of the Chicago Historical Society became the Chicago History Museum, which sounds a LITTLE more fun, although it still has the word “history” in it. Is it simply an attempt to update verbiage and appeal? The Chicago History Museum has also unveiled mobile apps that allow you to peer into the history of a place within the city from the convenience of your smart phone.

What does it mean to be a historical society – a 19th century term – in the 21st century? We’re collectively answering that question each day we toil away, but for now Anthea’s not planning on changing the name of my new home, the Golden State’s, statewide heritage non-profit founded in 1870,– it’s got too much history going for it!

Selling Out or Keeping It Real?

July 4, 2012

An article in the Washington Post yesterday described the economic challenges facing great European landmarks and how many are turning to corporate sponsorships and licensing deals to help defray the costs of maintaining ancient buildings.  This practice in turn has caused criticism from those who feel it is wrong to “sell” your collective heritage.

I began this blog a little less than seven years ago and in one of my early posts (prior to the invention of photography, apparently) I confessed my own apostasy in the case of the River Forest Women’s Club, a private club that was sold to a private owner who converted it into an award-winning home protected by preservation easements and powered by green technology.  (It is now for sale, if you are interested)

The controversy at that time was that the building was perceived as a public landmark, in part because the local Park District had operated it for paid public programming for three years.  But the public entity – the Park District – wanted to demolish the building, and did not have the resources to rehabilitate it following decades of deferred maintenance.

Should landmarks – physical elements of our collective heritage – be privatized?  The question is faulty on the face because it panders to the false idea that public and private are separate realms.  This ideational construct is not found, to my knowledge, in thousands of years of human history.  While some entities and enterprises are construed as public or private, their relationships and interpenetrations in the political economy of the real world are manifold.

There are obvious examples of this public-private symbiosis: bailouts of the banking and auto industries under Bush and Obama; financing of private railroads by 19th century land grants; massive municipal subsidies to private sports teams; the colossal public infrastructural support that made suburbs possible.  Yet still we prize this permeable distinction.

Clearly some standards are needed…

To me, the challenge in conserving our heritage, in interpreting it and insuring its value to our own and future generations is the challenge of sustainability:  how do you keep something vital, productive and relevant over time.

The answer to this question comes not simply from those with expertise in building materials, technologies, or architecture: nor simply from those who understand economics, planning and programming.  Every act of conservation, like every enterprise – succeeds or fails based on its successful balancing of all these factors and more.  It takes a village.

The question is not whether you put a billboard up on scaffolding, or allow a watch company to license the image of your landmark, or rent out your house museum to a TV production company for three days, but what the return on those actions is in terms of long-term sustainability of site, message, and ongoing public involvement.  If I make a public site inaccessible to the general public by renting it out two days a week to private entities, but the return on those two days ensures the long-term survival of the site – and its continued public access five days a week – I think I have a good deal.  This is a TV costume drama being shot in one of the courtyard house museums in East Lotus Village (Dong Lian Hua) in the Weishan Heritage Valley last month:

Our National Trust property in Monterey – Cooper-Molera Adobe – was once a commercial structure appended to a house.  It will be again, and the leasing to commercial interests will not only sustain the building – it will ENHANCE its message and interpretation because it will again function as it did originally.

At Mount Vernon they rebuilt and reopened the distillery that George Washington had built there.  I suppose Ann Pamela Cunningham, who spearheaded the effort to save Mount Vernon in the 1850s might have objected because her goal was to save Washington’s home from the onset of “manufactories”.  In terms of historic context, she was wrong, because in fact George Washington HAD a manufactory at Mount Vernon and was at one time the largest distiller in the United States.

But Ann Pamela promoted an ideological purism that sought to venerate landmarks as holy shrines.  Because we value the things we share we tend to make them sacred and want to protect them from the impulsiveness of markets or the vagaries of politics.  But any student of history can show how even the most sacred constructions had a vital economic role.  Moneychangers have ever been in the temple.

Gothic cathedrals were houses of worship to be sure, but they also had a place in important business transactions and documents BECAUSE they were public, communal places.  Khmer kings built temples to Shiva and Vishnu for worship to be sure, but also to shift commercial exchange to the environs of their new temple.   Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries of England less for religious belief and more because they had tons of money and commercial agriculture.

Perhaps there is utility in making our communal property a little more sacred than our private property.  A landmark is different – it contains stories of a community’s shared past.  It IS more important.  But importance and significance do not require religious asceticism.  A site can be significant AND productive.

That is the basic message of the Global Heritage Fund, since Monday my new employer and one of the few entities that recognizes heritage conservation as a vital community and economic development strategy.  Our mission is to use some of the world’s greatest heritage sites as keys to poverty alleviation, education and economic growth in developing countries.  Join us.

Here Eat This! House Museums and Ultimate Use II

June 20, 2012

In 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 in order to receive houses and turn them into museums – started to discuss the end of the house museum as we know it.  No more velvet ropes and stilted ossified stories of wealthy Victorians and the silver service they used when the Admiral visited.

As I have noted before, the house museum NEVER EVER worked as an economically viable use.  Those house museums that thrive are those that either A: charge a lot for a visit; B: do a bangup gift shop business (like the Wright sites); or C: have reinvented themselves a community centers, business retreats, or private homes.  It is that last option which just surfaced in Oak Park.

Hemingway birthplace, Oak Park

Ernest Hemingway won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was born in Oak Park in 1899, so some years ago they turned his birthplace into a house museum.  They had a strong funder, so they also turned an old church into an exhibit of his high school years and purchased his boyhood home – where he lived from age 6 to 18 – and hoped to give it a public use as well.

Hemingway Museum, Oak Park

Now, you can also visit Hemingway’s homes on the Gulf Coast, so he is an attraction.  But three museums in one town?  Too much.  That reality finally met its match when the boyhood home went to a private owner who will restore it as a single-family home.  And preserve it.

Hemingway boyhood home, Oak Park

USUALLY the best way to preserve something is as a private facility, not a public one.  This runs counter to our concept of public significance: Hemingway belongs to everyone.  To which I answer: so does the outside of his house.  People come to Oak Park to see Hemingway and they still have two museums plus a house they can walk by.  People come to Oak Park to see Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, even though 92% of them are private and not open to the public.

I did see another Frank Lloyd Wright this weekend – Pope-Leighey at Woodlawn, near Alexandria, Virginia.  That is one of the National Trust sites, and it is a good example of the trends in house museums.  Woodlawn is of the Washington family, but it has never been able to compete with Mount Vernon only 3 miles away.  So now it is doing what all historic sites are doing in 2012: goin’ foodie.

I noticed this in Lima, Peru during my work there over the past year, and I noticed it in Weishan, Yunnan, which doesn’t get a lot of tourists but has the best food on the planet.  (I know I only ever did Michelin green guides, not red guides, but trust me on this.  I have been around.)

Old Post Office, Lima – now Gastronomy Institute

My own dear National Trust site, the Gaylord Building, recently did a study to try to get in on the gastronomy thing, because it is seriously cresting in 2012: farm-to-table, locavorism, sustainability.  All of these trends resonate with conserving the embodied energy of an existing building.  Gastronomy is intangible heritage as well, something I saw on display in Lima.

The National Trust is doing it at Woodlawn, thanks to Arcadia, which has created a garden for local restaurants and others and is now a major player in the locally-sourced garden vegetable-and-fruit market for the area.

This will only get bigger, and I welcome it as yet another way to break us out of the idea that a historic place needs to be a museum.  I would rather it be an interpreted, dynamic, LIVING site.  Or even better, a GROWING one.

Farnsworth House 2011

September 24, 2011


There it is. My perfect Greek temple, the ultimate expression of art in nature, of architecture. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Great art and great architecture work like this: you can visit it a hundred times and you see something new, learn something new, feel something new every single time. I discover it every time at Unity Temple and every time at the Farnsworth House. In the video we show visitors, John Bryan says there is no building more important in modern architecture. Dirk Lohan calls it a poem. It is a beautiful and perfect chord, a wonderful harmony of steel and glass and white and light wood and it floats above its site, resting loosely on the world, ready to rise like sound.

It is the autumnal equinox, which means the tourist season at Farnsworth House has 60 more days, and the attendance has already surpassed last YEAR, which was the highest attendance EVER, and all this despite the challenges of rebuilding from a 2008 flood, the shift of operations from Landmarks Illinois to the National Trust, and the challenge of trying to complete several repair projects, some of which were funded years ago.

The house is about its setting, and the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois, under the leadership of John Bryan, secured the house at auction in December 2003, saving it from being dismantled and moved away from its Fox River location. That location means floods, six of which have reached into the house over its 60 years, each officially a “100-year flood”. Many would like to move it to save it from future flooding, but it was built for flooding. It is steel and glass, designed and molded with the perfection that only Ludwig Mies van der Rohe could muster, his unerring precision modulating every element from the smallest window profile to the placement of I-beams that seemed magnetically attached to the deck and house, a floating and dynamic glass house that is about nature but also, so clearly and musically, about floating above nature.

I brought tours groups there Thursday and Friday and they loved it. Part of what is bringing the attendance numbers up is the creative programming that Site Director Whitney French has done, including the installation this summer of Virginia Tech’s Lumenhaus, an energy-positive portable house that not only produces more electricity than it consumes, but also recycles all of its grey water by means of ponds and plants that line the deck surrounding its sunshades and solar panels.




Lumenhaus was inspired by the Farnsworth House, as was the National Trust’s Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, designed by longtime Mies associate Philip Johnson and completed before (but designed after) the Farnsworth House.

If you read this blog much, you know I am pretty down on house museums. I am Chair of the Historic Sites Fund subcommittee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and I have studied historic sites all over the country over time and I know how hard it is for a site to make sense economically based on tourism and ticket sales alone. Ticket sales historically rarely exceed 20% of operating costs, so you need a vigorous and successful combination of bookstore/shop sales, special events, rentals, and installations like Lumenhaus that make the site NEW again every year or season so people keep coming back.

I think Farnsworth House is one of those rare sites, like Robie House or Fallingwater or Monticello, that can make sense as a house museum. No matter how beautiful, how rich and resonant a piece of architecture is, it still takes the creativity and 24/7 dedication of people like Whitney French to make it a success. The Farnsworth House is getting there.

Filoli, Cooper-Molera Adobe, and the Gamble House

April 28, 2011

A month ago I posted about visiting three National Trust historic sites on the east coast, and last week I was on the opposite coast visiting our California sites, Filoli in Woodside, California, and Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey. I also got the chance to tour the famed Gamble House in Pasadena and I am including it here, since the Trust does not (YET) have a site in Southern California.

Filoli has an interesting history, insofar as its GARDENS were donated to the Trust by Lurline Roth in 1975, and there is still a great focus on the gardens, which cover some 16 acres and employ over 1,300 volunteers! There is also a successful garden shop and the site has maintained that attraction for Bay Area residents.

In 1978 Warren Beatty decided to film a part of “Heaven Can Wait” in the house itself, a massive 1923 red brick Georgian Revival with a blue ballroom to die for (which happened to be the primary set used for the film.) The ballroom features murals depicting both the Bay Area and Ireland, where the Bourn family vacationed.

The house is somewhat limited by very traditional “velvet ropes” interpretation, although given the quality and quantity of 17th and 18th century English antiques (plenty of chinoiserie – California is LOUSY with Chinoiserie!) the ropes are a necessary evil. As we begin to conceptualize 21st century historic sites, our goals are to increase their visibility, utility and vitality within their communities; maximize their potential as entrees to the National Trust and the preservation movement, and make them economically viable. If they aren’t viable as historic sites, they may well need to go back into the private market.

One idea for Filoli is to open it up more on the weekends when cyclists travel through the valley. A small concession offering drinks and snacks to the cyclists who already travel to Filoli could prove an important revenue stream, and even more importantly, an engagement stream.

On to historic Monterey, one of the oldest historic districts in the United States (1937- same year as New Orleans!) and home to the Cooper-Molera Adobe, the only adobe National Trust historic site. The house itself is actually only partially adobe, with an addition done in kiln-fired brick. The house dates to 1830, prior to Monterey becoming part of the United States, with additions in the 1850s.

The interior is interpreted with period furnishings, again in a pretty typical “house museum” aesthetic, although that is useful for the many school groups they get. One room is preserved as sort of on-site archaeology, with exposed foundations, original deteriorated wallpaper, and the like.


In addition, there is an “event space” that can be rented out adjacent to the house.

One of several outbuildings is used as an interpretive center, and there are several others that need rehabilitations, notably a large two-story barn.

There are also gardens, planted in a manner appropriate to the 1860s, with a smaller but no less dedicated volunteer crew. The whole complex is surrounded by an adobe wall (portions have a stone base), and a lot of the site needs some rehabilitation. One idea is to lease a portion of the site to a developer, who could put in a restaurant or other business.

Before you get your purist knickers in a twist about that idea, consider this: that is how the site was actually used for a major portion of its history. The house, interpretive center and both barns actually front on two of Monterey’s main streets, and a painted sign on the exterior of the house replicates the commercial uses that Cooper put that portion of the house to for most of its history. So, the concept has historic – and thus interpretive – validity.

Moreover, as a site operated by California Parks, it has been effectively closed for some time due to state budget cuts. To implement the plan will require a model process and a model lease, but in so doing it could prove a national model for how to craft lease provisions that hold tenants to interpretive and rehabilitation goals – while providing the capital needed to maintain the site. Of course, the devil will be in the details: do they need to break through the adobe wall? Will some of the gardens need to be curtailed? How will the commercial uses interface with school groups and others?

The age of the pure museum – if it ever existed – is over: Major museums have been doing overtly commercial projects and leasing to restaurants for decades. House museums have maintained the more purist anticommercial model longer. Some have the endowments or philanthropic “angels” needed to maintain this culture, but it is important to remember an economic fact I turned up in researching the history of historic preservation: The traditional house museum model NEVER EVER worked economically. Admissions have ALWAYS paid for about 20-25% of operating costs for any site. That was true in 1903 and 2003 and most times in between.

Now, on to the Gamble House. This is owned by the University of Southern California (Hi Trojans!) and is the biggest Arts and Crafts Bungalow ever, probably, with over 8,000 square feet of finely fitted and finished wood, buckets of built-ins and Stickley furniture, and a few ropes, although I think they are appropriately NOT velvet.

this is a postcard because you are not allowed to take pictures inside
The tours are very traditional, and like at Villa Finale and other places with lots of fancy stuff, they have both a tour guide AND a minder to make sure you don’t touch the walls. They let you trod upon the carpets but warn you to avoid the carpet edges as they could fray.

And they DO let you touch the beautiful staircase railing, which has always been one of my favorite details of the house. So I pretty much fondled the hell out of it. The aesthetic – natural woods, simple designs with Japanese influence, art glass and low, sprawling horizontality – is of course related very closely to its contemporary Prairie Style.

A worthy visit, and interestingly, they do utilize the house in another way: two USC students live there as caretakers. The neighborhood also has loads of other Greene & Greene bungalows of more modest dimension, and even La Miniatura, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile block houses of the 1920s.


Tomorrow I am touring house museums in and around Chicago: the Dawes House in Evanston, Robie House, Glessner House and Hull House in Chicago, each with a rich architectural and social history, each with challenges economic and interpretive (and you know already that I think Hull House does some of the most exciting interpretive efforts in the country) but I have to say that the response to the tour has been overwhelming – they had to add a third date to keep up with demand. But that doesn’t mean you can pay for a house with tour admissions.

Lyndhurst, Kykuit and Glass House

March 30, 2011

I am just back from New York and meetings of the Historic Sites of the National Trust for Historic Preservation where we welcomed our brand new Vice President of Historic Sites, Estevan Rael-Gálvez. I also got the chance to see three of the National Trust Historic Sites, starting with perhaps the greatest Gothic Revival house in America, Lyndhurst:

Designed in two stages by Alexander Jackson Davis for two owners, Lyndhurst is best known as the onetime home of Gilded Age robber baron Jay Gould, and its architecture reflects the ostentation and chutzpah of the man who created the first “Black Friday” in the stock market 130 years ago. It has been a Trust property open to the public since 1965, and many hikers and bikers pass by daily as they ramble along the Hudson River.

There are several outbuildings, including this fascinating Shingle Style bowling alley from the late 19th century.

We had a dinner at Lyndhurst, which has had its financial challenges over the years but has improved as a site for events and activities, something all house museums must do if they are to get “beyond the velvet ropes” into sustainable business models. I have said it many times, but it bears repeating: Historic houses museums have NEVER IN ALL OF HISTORY made more than about 20-25% of their operating income from tours. Creative programming and appropriate income-generation are necessary for all sites. We had good discussions about how business opportunities at sites can and should be integral to the site’s mission and interpretation. You don’t simply jump at the first opportunity: you develop ideas about business activities that reinforce what visitors to the site can learn and take away with them. That way stewardship is built along with financial support.

We had our meetings at Kykuit, the early 20th century Rockefeller estate, which is home to the Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. This is of course the kind of financial “angel” every historic site dreams of, but the reality is that even this site needs viable economic uses, despite having the financial support of one of America’s great fortunes.


The house overlooks the Hudson River Valley and is very cleverly landscaped so that you cannot see Tarrytown or any of the other built-up areas below. You appear to be along the river, when in fact it is two miles away.

In addition to the home’s architectural expressions, which range from the slightly rustic exterior stone to the Classically rich interior decoration, there is an amazing modern art collection that includes Picasso tapestries, Warhols and Calders among others. And a very fun little cavern with Tiffany stalactite lights.


I also got the opportunity to visit the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, which is not far away. Johnson began discussions to give the property to the National Trust the same year he received the first Pritzker Architecture prize, in 1979.

I was struck by several aspects of the complex, which includes several structures added after the 1949 glass house, all the way into the 1980s and 1990s. I like the dry stone walls all over the property, especially their contrast with the sculptural purity of much of the architecture.

I also was struck by another landscape manipulation, more visible in the early Spring, of the trees in the vale below the promontory where the Glass House sits. They are arranged in triangular forms, to manipulate the perspective when viewed from the house and make the forest seem deeper.

And even though it is very different than the Farnsworth House Mies was designing at the same time, I was struck by the similarities. Yes, it is black steel on the ground, not white steel on stilts, and the rectilinearities are all balanced by circular forms in the central bathroom, the nearby pond, the brick house windows and the Donald Judd concrete sculpture.

Maybe it is that the house, like the Farnsworth House, is about bringing the site inside, about making the natural world the setting for the architecture, about volume rather than mass. It is also that the Glass House has basically the SAME furniture, designed by Mies.

There is also a lot of art there, in the subterranean painting studio replete with Schnabels and Stellas and Rauschenbergs and a sculpture building with more Stellas, Heizer and even Bruce Naumann among others.

The more you look at architecture, the more you see the similarities and connections. When I first saw the Farnsworth House, my reaction was: It’s a Greek Temple. Not because it was a mimetic copy of a Greek Temple, but because the forms and colors and play of light gave the viewer the same feeling as a Greek Temple, that contrast between Nature and Culture.

The Glass House does not feel like a Greek Temple, and I suppose I would have to experience it in more seasons and conditions, but seeing it right after Kykuit was a sort of revelation because a glass wall and a stone wall are very different but perhaps not opposites, because both are trying to conventionalize and communicate from natural forms, one by employing the stone in a naturalistic fashion and the other by letting you see through and assemble the stone and trees yourself on the canvas of a glass wall.


Ways of Seeing.
Beyond Categories.

I will be seeing more National Trust Historic Sites this Spring and I can’t wait!

Thursday Update: Paper announced today (But Whitney French told me two days ago) that “Superman” will be filming in Plano, IL, home to the Farnsworth House. The Man of Steel and the House of Steel and Glass!

Do We Really Want Authenticity?

March 10, 2011

“Authenticity” is a word we keep coming back to in the world of cultural heritage conservation. The concept of authenticity lies at the centerpiece of the international charters that have defined preservation practice since the 1930s, and especially since the shift toward “intangible cultural heritage” that began with the Nara document in 1994.

Shoso-in, 8th century temple pavilion at Nara, photographed 2004.

Authenticity is a key aspect of how visitors encounter and experience historic sites. In our work in the Weishan Heritage Valley in China, we stress the value to the heritage tourist of authenticity. This is an argument for maintaining local businesses along the Southern Silk Road in Weishan, rather than removing them for tourist shops, as has been done in Lijiang, a World Heritage Site that experienced catastrophic tourist development and became an economic monoculture.

Peaches for sale, main road, Weishan, China, 2009 Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Weishan, main road, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Tinsmith, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael
Weishan is a county seat for the Yi and Hui Autonomous county, a diverse region made of many ethnicities, including the Hui, a Muslim group whose stunning Dong Lun Hua village I visited in 2008 and 2009.

Courtyard house at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Mosque at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

As a county seat, Weishan has businesses that service the entire valley countryside, such as coffin makers and funerals. These are authentic, and they are still done in their authentic location, in stark contrast to the tourist shops in downtown Lijiang.

Funeral wreath, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Funeral procession in Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Coffin shop, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

But I have also written in the past about the large market that exists for sites and stories that SEEM authentic but are not. My favorite example from near Weishan is the famed Three Pagodas at Dali, where tourists flock to see a T’ang era pagoda flanked by two of more recent vintage. These once stood in front of a large Buddhist temple complex during the era of the Dali Kingdom in the 10th century.

So they rebuilt it. In 2006. A massive complex of more than two dozen brand new temples filled with hundreds of gold leafed statues. There was a temple complex here a millenium ago, but it has not been here for a long time and the reconstruction is extremely conjectural. It lacks authenticity.


Changsheng temple complex, Dali, 2009. Photographs copyright Vincent L Michael

But it does not lack tourists (although apparently it has not attracted as many as they would like). The point here – and in Lijiang, is that for a large group of tourists, authenticity doesn’t matter.

You can call it the Disneyland effect, and while I used to use Disneyland as a sort of insult to authentic places, it is worth remembering two things. First, Disneyland itself is now an historic landmark more than 50 years old. Second, places do not have to be old to be authentic. Disneyland was authentic when it was new. But there is a reason that Disneyland becomes an epithet for the heritage conservationist: part of what it offers to the tourist is the FEELING and IMPRESSION of age and nostalgia. It is authentically new, but part of its authenticity is an inauthentic channeling of impressions of the past into the present.

One of the ways you can distinguish between Disneyland authenticity and REAL authenticity is that the real stuff sometimes is stinky or ugly or unkempt or unresolved. Like reality.

deer hoof as a hook in courtyard house, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Despite the plethora of China images and examples above, what got me thinking about this today was a new restaurant in Chicago by the unparalleled Grant Achatz, whose Alinea has three Michelin stars and has soared past the entirety of Manhattan cuisine. His new concept is called Next, and will change its theme every few months, as reported today here. In cuisine, as in heritage conservation, there is great interest in authenticity, and Achatz’ first attempt will be to bring Next back to Paris in 1906. As the article notes, the reaction to a recreation of a 1906 sunchoke and roasted hazelnut soup was “polarizing”. A lot of people hated it. Because it was authentic.

This reminded me of a trip I did for Michelin (green guides, not cuisine) to Indianapolis in 1999. I visited the James Whitcomb Riley House in Lockerbie Square, which was never restored, only preserved exactly as it was. The proof of this authenticity came as soon as you walked into the living room, for the ceiling of the 1872 home was painted in a silver color that was uncomfortable, garish, and generally awful. And absolutely authentic. Fortunately for you, they did not allow pictures inside.

Disneyland would never have used that color, because it would drive away business. Grant Achatz is such a star at this point that he can dictate the authentic experience and NOT cater to popular taste. Alinea famously chooses your 13 or 14 courses for you (see this comic.). Special needs or tastes can eat elsewhere, which, in a sense, is the price of authenticity.

The same issue came up on the near north side of town in the Kemper House, an 1873 home that was restored by Eli Lilly, the great Indianapolis preservationist who endowed the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. HLFI had restored the house as their offices and then as a house museum, and returned the original exterior paint scheme, which upset many locals who had been used to seeing the exterior painted white, as it had been for many years. That was the authentic memory, but true, original authenticity had another color scheme.

But that scheme did not extend to the interior. They researched the original wall colors inside and through scientific analysis found the original color of the walls. And it was godawful and they could not bring themselves to recreate it. It would have been too off-putting.

I started thinking about authenticity the other night when I was perusing a hot rod magazine given me by Chris Osborne, the purveyor of the lovely magazine Brisbane Modern, which charts the mid-century Modern aspects of Queensland.

As I read about the hot rods, a cultural artifact I do not know much about at all, I noted that all had historic labels: ’34 Willys, ’29 Ford, ’50 Buick, etc. But often the bodies were fibreglass reproductions, the chassis extensively chopped or boxed, and it was very difficult to discern from the descriptions which cars had much historic material, if any at all. I guess it was beside the point: taste and appeal to past elements was the agent here, not authenticity.

Disneyland itself did this from the beginning and still does. I always have my students read a description in the Wall Street Journal from 1996 about the opening of an Atlantic-City-styled boardwalk in Disney World. It has all of the attractions of Atlantic City without any of the beggars or gambling down-and-outers. It was sanitized history, and it was a successful product. But what really struck me was the reaction people had to it. My favorite quote:

“It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew.”

That’s it.
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Philip K. Dick has come true.

Hull House Reopens!

September 8, 2010

Hull House Museum reopened September 9 with a day-long celebration that started at Noon in Daley Plaza, celebrating the 150th birthday of Nobel-prize winning social activist and Hull House founder Jane Addams.

Come see what Lisa Lee and Mike Plummer (and my good friend Bob Johnson, who redid the interior) have done with the interpretation, which I reviewed last night:

IT’S GREAT! There is an openness to the overall design that is inviting and a contrast to the ancient stereotype of the house museum. It also more realistically conveys the use of the house, which was full of people and activities, and not a traditional Victorian house.

The interpretation is complex but crisp, innovative in its use of technology without being smitten with technology. In fact, it uses pretty much every kind of interpretation there is, from wall text and vitrines for objects to cell phone audio tours and interactive “find this thing” worksheets.

These are in the rear parlor, which served as a dining room early on, and has old historic books you can look at (and some you can’t, but they are both there) and art from Hull House residents.

I can remember being at a building conservation conference in Sweden three years ago and hearing about cell phone audio tours – Hull House used them even before this reinterpretation – and they are sagely used not to talk about the past alone but link the social justice mission of 19th century Hull House with similar (and sometimes identical) missions today.

I learned a lot in the front parlor, which focuses on key women reformers, Florence Kelley, who fled an abusive husband in the 1890s and helped eliminate child labor; Ida B. Wells, who fought lynching, Julia Lathrop, Ellen Gates Starr and more. Their stories are in circular vitrines that combine objects and text, while the wall mailbox used by residents is repurposed to link to present day issues.

One of the most innovative rooms is the octagonal bay, where there is a sound installation that combines audio files from Hull House residents and commentators with period sounds like streetcars, typewriters, sewing machines and more. Sound history is a relatively new field, and it is exciting to hear it in this context.

The thing that really got me excited when I walked in was the new model of the Hull House complex, lovingly rendered by John Peplinski, who dug even deeper for photos and images than I did when I first traced the history of the buildings back in 2003. The level of detail in the model is amazing, and it is set in front of the famous – but flawed – painting of the 1856 Hull House that was used for the 1960s restoration.

The model is fantastic – you can see the diamond-paned windows and diaper brick patterns so indicative of Pond & Pond’s work, you can see the bridges and balconies and even the TB tent on top of the Crane Nursery. It was very exciting to see it in such detail.

And just next to it, projected on the window – the wonderful 1930s film of Halsted Street by Conrad Friberg, a social documentary of the time that I always show my students (along with the 1997 Halsted Street film by David Simpson). And there it is facing Halsted Street…

Now one of the very exciting things about this reinterpretation is that the second floor is now open to the public. Jane Addams’ bedroom is well rendered with more decidedly Victorian wallpaper (a Morris pint), the famous painting of her longtime companion Mary Rozet Smith, a desk with significant correspondence, childhood memories and family items, her 1931 Nobel Peace Prize and a wall of press clippings that illustrate both her fame and the vitriol directed against “the most dangerous woman in America.”

Another room details the influential pioneering sociological study Hull House Maps and Papers, and another focuses on the Juvenile Justice System pioneered at Hull House.

It is mind boggling to think of all the reforms that came out of this place. Child labor laws. Juvenile justice courts. Housing and income surveys. Hazardous chemical controls in workplaces. Playgrounds. Kindergarten. Yes, kindergarten – they found and reinstalled this century-old plaque commemorating Jenny Dow’s innovation.

At the National Trust we have spent a decade trying to move house museums “beyond the velvet ropes” and this reinterpretation does just that. But the house speaks too, in new ways. A series of “Architectural encounters” demystify everything from wallpaper and paint to the original purplish bricks of the Hull House, buried under a new brick skin in the curious 1960s restoration.

We learn about the meaning of interior finishes and we see that it is BOTH a Victorian house like so many we have seen before but it is also something else.

One of the most felicitous moments for me was reading Jane Addams’ account of how nice and comfortable the dining room was, a typical bourgeoise appreciation of fine accoutrements, and then reading upstairs about her early encounter with poverty as a child seeing the crowded houses of Freeport, Illinois and declaring that she would live in a big nice house but that that house would be in the crowded poor district. Which is exactly what she did with her life. This is not pure benevolence or guilt nor is it some sort of sacrificial asceticism – she wasn’t slumming it, she was bringing her world to theirs and trying to understand both worlds and trying to figure out how to ameliorate the painful parts of society. But she didn’t walk in with the solution, only the desire to build a bridge – Hull House – between the haves and have-nots.

I have said it before and I will say it again, what is fantastic about the history interpreted here is that it is not interpreted as something removed in time or place, but something that happened in this place and is still happening and is still relevant. In the Juvenile Justice room you are invited to write a poem and send it to a prisoner. Because they asked for poems. You are invited to look at Jane’s books and to see the ceramics made by 1930s Mexican immigrant Jesus Torres in the Hull House kilns and you and I and everyone else are invited every Tuesday to Rethinking Soup for free soup and a chance to talk about current issues like food sourcing, nutrition, sustainability. They grow much of the food they serve across the street and they strive to engage all of the issues that the original residents engaged as they sought to understand the entirety of the society and city they lived in and to do something about it.

Ghost Sign at Roger Brown Studio

July 28, 2010

SAIC did a good job repointing the wall at the Roger Brown Study Collection at 1926 N. Halsted in Chicago, saving and enhancing the existing Daily News ghost sign that has been there for the better part of a century. Here is the before-and-after courtesy of Ron Fitzpatrick, Director of Design and Construction.

This ghost sign may have helped inspire Roger to choose the building for his home and studio back in the 1970s. Ghost signs are a fascinating phenomenon, and hard to preserve. We just lost the 1960s Pago Pago sign downtown, and invariably they appear and disappear quickly. Here is one that emerged for less than a month in 1997, on North Avenue near Humboldt Park. It is clearly a pre-Prohibition sign revealed when a nice Victorian was demolished adjacent to Roeser’s Bakery – Seipp was a major Chicago brewer and the builder of Black Point in Lake Geneva.

SAIC MSHP alumna Nicole Donohoe did her thesis on ghost signs, an amazing inventory (the largest thesis ever in our program!) and even got on WTTW once thanks to her great work.

more to come


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