Archive for the ‘House Museums’ Category

Farnsworth House 2015

June 21, 2015

It has been 13 months since I last blogged about the Farnsworth House (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951).  In that blog I detailed the various options that had been studied to try to conserve the house despite the increased flooding of the Fox River at its location near Plano, Illinois.

farnsworth615c

Last week.  Maybe next week too.

I have been involved in this house for a long time due to my Board service at both Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and for the last couple years I have also served on the Technical Advisory Panel looking at flooding mitigation options for the Farnsworth House.  I have been a cheerleader for the process the National Trust has undertaken, and I have listened especially closely to the National Park Service, since it is essential in my mind that any actions taken insure we preserve the National Historic Landmark status of this iconic masterpiece of architecture.

farnsworth615b

I came into the process as a skeptic, not wanting to move or alter the house.  Let it flood, I said, taking a purist position.  It’s a submarine, I said.  I did not like the idea of moving it because we bought it in 2003 so it wouldn’t be moved away.  As Dirk Lohan (Mies’ grandson and an important architect in his own right) says, the house makes no sense if it is in a location that does not flood,

FH 2013 terrace hosue

I became convinced that the hydraulic option – putting the house on hydraulic jacks that would lift it out of harm’s way in the case of a flood – was the best preservation option, and I still believe that.  Doing nothing, I realized, relegated the house to the status of archaeological ruin.  But of course doing anything with a house of this international significance will cause some people to get their knickers in a twist, pressing upwards as they express objections to actions which could harm this landmark.  As all actions can.  As inaction will.

FH 2013 frontal

Doing nothing will do great harm to the building, and it is clear from the National Park Service and others that doing nothing is NOT a preservation option.  That is the archaeological ruin option.  Yesterday in the Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin reported on what has happened in the last year as some preservationists – John Vinci in particular – have objected to the hydraulic option and forced the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois to investigate a new option – moving it almost half a mile to a new site on Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s property where it will 1.  flood less, 2. allow a reinterpretation of the original landscape, which was ruined by the introduction of a highway bridge in 1970, reimagined as a manicured landscape in the 1970s and 80s,  and altered by the loss of a sugar maple tree that framed the house in 2012.

fh f riverS

This tree is no more

Doing anything dramatic – and dramatic options are all that remain – will upset or excite people.  Look how the Miesians got upset about the new window stops at IIT Crown Hall – a quarter-inch slope meant that a NON-RIGHT ANGLE had been inserted, thus wrecking (??) Mies’ vision.

the bite

Don’t tell me you can’t see that.  Come on! 

Given that Landmarks Illinois has to approve whatever solution obtains thanks to their preservation easement, and given that they did NOT support the hydraulic solution across their Board, the National Trust is now looking at this new relocation option.  (Note:  I have not been on the Landmarks Illinois Board for two years)

cornfield bus

Like here.

I still prefer the hydraulic solution because it keeps the building in place.  I also reject the irresponsible claims by some that this technology is somehow a big deal.

About Hydraulics

Let me take you back to to 1854, when Elishu Otis demonstrated the safety elevator.  Hydraulics – which preceded Otis by a decade – powered that elevator.  His innovation was a brake.  Within a few years, hydraulics allowed tall buildings to be practical.  By 1882, four years before Ludwig Mies was born –  you had a company in London running high-pressure mains 184 miles powering some 8,000 elevators.  So if this 175-year old technology worries you, avoid elevators.

333 elev doors

You’ll never get me up in one of those things.

Hydraulic jack technology is older than the zipper, the typewriter (what’s that?) and the automobile.  As the great Bob Silman, who investigated ALL of these options, noted, we put our lives on hydraulics whenever we get on an airplane.  All those noises you hear?  Hydraulics.  Think of all the times you have flown and the hydraulics on the landing gear failed.  Go ahead.

airplane

Sorry I’m Amish.

Back to the Decision – and Owning It.

Indications are that this relocation option – like the hydraulic solution – will still meet the National Historic Landmark status requirements.  This is really important and a key factor in the decision in my view.  The relocation option also appears to have the favor of John Vinci – who has no official role in the process.  Landmarks Illinois DOES have a role in the process.   As soon as we at the National Trust present our preferred option Landmarks Illinois will need to make a decision, especially in light of the fact that we have investigated this new relocation option based on their reaction to the hydraulic option.

farnsworth11 grtS

I get it – I have been in this field for over 32 years.  I LOVE being in the John Vinci position of sniping and throwing brickbats against the powers that be, safely outside the decision-making process.  That’s what I did in my 20s, and that saved some buildings from uncaring owners or inconsiderate government entities.  But Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust quite literally TOOK OWNERSHIP of this house a dozen years ago and are now responsible – there is no one but ourselves to snipe and throw brickbats at.

farns living east1109p

Or stones.  Maybe I should have said stones.  It’s a glass house after all.

So my role of late has been to praise the process the National Trust has undertaken over the last three years and to insist that every organization involved take ownership of the eventual solution.  Landmarks Illinois has made this a Board decision as opposed to a decision of the Fund and Easements Committee.  Fine.  But no decision – like taking no action – is NOT an option.  That decision will likely not be comfortable, but I for one will own it.

farns bedroom1109s

You make your bed you sleep in it.

Transforming Heritage Philanthropy

May 13, 2015

Last week in this blog I presented some concepts on how we can create a more democratic, diverse and inclusive heritage conservation in the United States, largely by applying the lessons of international heritage conservation over the last twenty years, notably the Burra Charter.  Preservation is a process, not a set of rules.

lincolns cottage best2

President Lincoln’s Cottage, Washington DC

The second challenge we face in bringing our field into the 21st century is organizational and financial.  When preservation was about monuments and house museums, it looked to the traditional 19th and 20th century model of the non-profit institution for its organizational and financial logic.  This was how Ann Pamela Cunningham formed the Mount Vernon Ladies Association; how William Sumner Appleton founded the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and indeed this was the idea that Congress had in 1949 when it chartered the National Trust for Historic Preservation to take care of great house museums.

woodlawn bestS

Woodlawn plantation, where it all began…

As I have pointed out many times before over the last decade, this model had financial problems, mostly due to the eternal misconception that ticket sales to tour a house museum could provide the revenue needed to operate same.  In fact, ticket revenues top out at about 20-25% of annual operating costs, and this was as true in William Sumner Appleton’s day as it is in our own.

Lyndhurst E besterS

Sorry, I don’t do windows..

Organizationally it is challenging as well because non-profits, especially historical societies and other groups who undertook heritage projects, tend to the orchidaceous, working to maintain not only artifacts large and small, but narratives.  This can lead to the classic problem:  you visit a site once in fourth grade and never need to return, because it is still the same.

dining room2

I swear someone moved that fork….

I covered all of this in my previous blogs about house museums here and here.  To me the value of conserving ANYTHING from history is that is can be re-examined and re-interpreted as new data come to light.  This is the opposite of many olden-days preservation efforts, which saw a singular story in their artifact(s).

office PAS

If you ask three inhabitants, you get three different stories..

It is also useful to look beyond the interpretive issues and focus on the organization.  Non-profits can be dynamic, evolutionary and creative, but those with a heritage bent will tend not to be disruptive, like every startup right outside that window here in Silicon Valley.  They also have historically tended to be reactive, arising in response to crisis.  This too, puts preservation into the legislative/regulatory world (you get a stop sign only after someone gets run over) but in a greater sense, we need to apply the lessons of the Burra Charter to how we organize and fund preservation/conservation.

money or culture

If only it were that simple…

What do you mean, Vince?  I mean you engage the community from the beginning not only in identifying heritage and how to save it in a culturally appropriate way, but you engage the community in the financial and organizational structure as well.  Crowdfund – which as everyone in Silicon Valley knows, is not a way to raise money for a project (you still think that?  where you been?) but a way to raise constituency and customer base in order to attract serious investors.

Porter House Los AltosS

In the olden days – and still today – preservationists wanted to find an “angel” with carloads of money to come save their rare treasure.  And indeed, when you are looking at buildings that were built for absurdly wealthy people, it makes sense that you would need one to keep it going.  But this model runs counter to the Burra Charter – if the community is not INVESTED in the project, they won’t give a damn about it and eventually that angel will go join the other angels and then where will you be?

HDL 38 best

Well, if you are here, it is a nice place to see…

This is to me another illustration of the Burra Charter’s utility – it works as well in suburban Chicago as it does in darkest Peru.  This doesn’t mean you don’t have major donors, and even principal donors, but you need to spread it out because to be sustainable you have to last GENERATIONS so you need to generate enthusiasm from the local community.  This is of course why people often turn to governmental institutions, since they represent the community and presumably have the resources over time.

c-m overhang

Except when they don’t…

Except when they don’t, which is why Congress created the National Trust in 1949, remember?  My entire career has taken place in the wake of the Reagan Revolution and the dawn of the public-private partnership, when every weight must be carried on several sets of shoulders.

msi karyatids

or heads…

35 years of whining about regulations means that conserving historic buildings, neighborhoods and structures today is a market-driven, project-based public-private partnership that takes advantage of the economic and community vitality that preserving things provides.  And it provides it at a better price point and lasts a hell of a lot longer than shoddy new stuff.  Historic Preservation tends to be for real capitalists, not the whiners.

high stair vic

There are too many steps!  I don’t wanna!  Waah!

Philanthropy has changed in the last 35 years as well.  Now, donors are impact investors who want to see results, not simply attendees at black-tie galas or members of exclusive clubs.  People want metrics, and while we may be MORE that way out here in Silicon Valley, it is a nationwide, and indeed a worldwide phenomenon.  We have seen the rise of social entrepreneurship.  We have seen the distinction between profit and non-profit blur (you don’t need to make a profit in Silicon Valley to be one of the world’s biggest companies after all) and we have seen the slow decline of old-line membership organizations.  We need the Uber-app for heritage conservation, the one that let’s you donate with a click and get a pic of the difference you made NOW.

jaquard loom

And of course follow the thread if you wish

Our brave new world of apps and sharing and creative destruction needs to be embraced by the heritage field, but we do have a deep-rooted bias against it.  Ann Pamela Cunningham wasn’t just trying to save Mount Vernon, she was trying to save the Union, and in a very real sense, an already obsolete agrarian aristocracy.  What did she say in 1874?  Oh yeah, this:

Ladies, the home of Washington is in your charge…Let no irreverent hand change it, let no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress…Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change.[i]  

old loco

Aaaugh!! Progress!!!!

She was particularly cheesed off by the “manufactories” that could be seen from Mount Vernon.  Not only was preservation anti-economic and anti-Progress, it was anti-Industrial Revolution, which actually has echoes in the contemporary philosophy of William Morris.  But setting yourself up outside of the economic logic of your world cannot work over generations.  Which is why we, in the heritage field, will continue to embrace and engage our current social economy so we can succeed in twenty years.

old techno

And we do need to get rid of some overhead…..

There are lots of ways to do this.  Successful house museums are the ones with diverse programming, extensive community engagement, and leveraged gift/book shops with vigorous online presence.  Successful preservation organizations are the ones who are able to kickstart enough people to convince the donor/investors to participate and ramp them up to the next level.  Yes, we need members and galas, but at the end of the day the dynamic organization is going to get the honey.

012409_0815

can’t rest on your laurels, much less your Turrell

The opportunities for social entrepreneurship are massive – heck they are doing it in Barcelona with Gaudi already and the Wall Street Journal is reporting it.  The biggest opportunity out there, and the biggest lesson of the valley is that you want to be a desired brand that people will pay for.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation was created so that Congress didn’t have to try to save these old houses.  Tomorrow it can be the brand every historic building owner wants.  There is an obvious analogy:

leed plaqueS

LEED.  LEED certified.  Architects have it on their business cards after their name.  LEED is awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council but you have to PAY FOR IT.  They used to do it just by design – you designed something and checked off their boxes for nice things like graywater treatment and bike racks and you got a LEED plaque even if the building required 20,000 truckloads of garbage to build.  They got smarter, noticed that half of their certified buildings weren’t performing to standard, and started to get the kind of metrics modern investor/donors need.  They are a must-have success story and someone in the heritage field will figure out soon how to brand themselves that way.  I blogged about this 3 years ago here.

ballaghmore castle sng

Do you get points for insulating walls that are 3 feet thick?

So how does heritage conservation become socially entrepreneurial?  By building on community engagement.  By insuring that heritage is at the center of neighborhood planning.  My reminding everyone that their favorite neighborhoods and commercial districts are historic and by trading on and trading for that superior value-add.

852-54-w-armitgs

But is there parking?

But What About International Heritage?

Internationally, the case is simultaneously simpler and more complex.  Most countries do not have tax incentives for historic preservation – I remember presenting to a group in Ahmedabad, India in 2008 and the Ahmedabad Times only covered one element of my speech – tax incentives for preservation.  Now, seven years later, India actually has them, but in general the philanthropic model of the Anglo-American NGO is foreign in most places.

doshi and vm

Balkrishna Doshi and I, Ahmedabad, 2008

Nonprofits in the U.S. live and die on the tax deductibility of contributions – there is far less of this culture in other places, which suggests one thing:  If and when they adopt a philanthropic culture, it will be an entirely new model.  Data mining, place-sharing, community-leveraging, economic modality-defying and disruptive for sure.

PearlLamAPt furnitur

This is not your mother’s china…

China and India will fill up with social corporations faster than we can perceive, and we may be learning from them how to pay for – and organize – the basic human concept of determining what elements of the past we need to have in the future to sustain ourselves.

[i]Quoted in Sherr, Lynn, and Kazickas, Jurate, Susan B. Anthony Slept Here: A guide to American Women’s Landmarks., New York and Toronto,Times Books, Random House, 1976 and 1994, p. 464.

Mediation and the Myth of Original States

August 11, 2014

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If this is a brain teaser or rhetorical question, you’ve already heard it wrong. It’s a false choice that exists only in the mediation of the mind and nowhere in reality.

birth ganges
Birth of the Ganges, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu. Historians argue whether the yogic figure in the center is Arjuna or Bhagiratha. Michael Rabe says both. In most situations, the answer is not either or but both and.

All mediations between reality and cognition distort, and the first distortion is the myth of categories with impermeable boundaries. I blogged about this two years ago in “Categories Are Your Frenemies.” Categories are like a learning device and the mature mind realizes that their boundaries are permeable, while the immature mind finds comfort in the security of their permanence. Collect a whole bunch of (false) categories and you can cook up an ideology.

eure pflichtS

Welcome to Time Tells, and indeed Time is the invisible fourth dimension that allows categorization to occur. I am fond of saying all ideologies are wrong because they are static while the reality of society, politics and economics is dynamic. Then you have the whole problem of linear versus circular time (which I also dealt with in 2012 here.) but let’s stay outside of quantum metaphysics today and focus on one of my favorite words: Mediation.

IMG_4908
Nature and artifice or just pure mediation?

We live in a media-saturated world and both children and adults are lambasted for how much time they spend staring at screens devouring all sorts of “media.” These screens have been growing both massive and tiny at the same time (which proves my first point) but much of the content remains very similar to the old print world, the world which saw panic over both comic books and television in the decade BEFORE I WAS BORN. The main distinction is that we now have user-created content and crowdsourced content, and of course the endless scroll of “Comments,” which formerly had to be hand-written on bathroom stalls.
IMG_4900
The modern world is so much more transparent, don’t you think?

But to focus on content, as the ideologists do, is to ignore the mediation. To mediate is to create a bridge between reality and its multivalent perceptions, and it is the nature of such bridges that they frame reality on the one side and thus perception on the other.

Felton bridge2s
See? Felton. It’s a landmark.

The problem is that people forget the frame is there – they naturalize the mediation and feel in direct touch with reality. We know that we “frame” arguments and that we can’t trust news sources (except for comedy outlets – how did that happen?) but we still tend to forget about the frame. This is a mistake. You have to know how the lens works otherwise everything will remain upside-down.

guggenheim int downbS

Of course it is much easier when you can see the frame – we know to doubt newspapers and websites, because these are “media” which mediate. The frames of religion and ideology are equally apparent. The harder frames are cultural, so ingrained in our Erziehung that their mediation is invisible. Successful ideologies and religions align with the invisible cultural norms, taking advantage of their invisibility. Thus “normal” is aligned with a particular power structure, whose frames vanish in the social and linguistic everyday.

IMG_5111

While it would be fun to spray the fungos of bald ideologies all over the outfield I think it more useful to try to connect with the sliders and de-cipher some of the normalities we assume as original states and find their specific – and fantastically modern – historical origins.

family at hut-3

One of my favorites is the nuclear family, a post-World War II construct that maximizes consumerism by insuring that other relatives stop living at home as they had for all of human history, thus selling more mortgages and washing machines and toasters and BBQ grills.

50s kitch truman museS

Another is cheap energy. We think of energy being cheap before the 1973 oil embargo, which it was, but its cheapness doesn’t stretch that far back – it was expensive in the Victorian era, which is why the buildings and interiors of that era – that you often see in house museums – had a functional purpose of saving energy costs.

EVERY 19TH
Says it all

Another one, which I blogged about last year, is the museum. This one has more of a provenance, but it is younger than the United States.

brit mus ancient
Lotta frames here too

Buildings to house artifacts and display them to the public has always had an aura of public service, although its emergence in the late 18th century with the advent of modern capitalism suggests a consumer motivation as well, one that ultimately revealed itself at the Met in the 1960s when Thomas Hoving made the mummies dance.

nouveau rm orly
Ceci n’est pas une Chambre à coucher

I have been very involved in the question of house museums through my role with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. House museums are even newer, dating from the middle of the 19th century, although their real explosion (to some 15,000 nationwide) happened in the same post-World War II era as the nuclear family, which explains part of their plight.

Lyndhurst f rvr bestS
Lyndhurst, New York

See that postwar era had several things going for it that helped house museums – cheap energy (a rare 30-year blip in human history), a resurgent automobile culture (without the icky multigenerationalisms of the Grapes of Wrath), a booming domestic tourist economy (that coincides roughly with the cheap energy blip) and a triumphalist patriotism that encouraged investigations into American heritage and history.

Leon's custardS
happy days

The house museum became a cultural trope – thousands of small communities across the U.S. got involved in historic preservation because they wanted to save a significant local building, and in more cases than not, the proposed use of the site was as a museum, both in the Mount Vernon sense of a glimpse into a former era, but also as the local historical archive – a place to collect local history. This gave it a secondary purpose beyond tourism, although with limited means of support.

hist socy archivesS

The house museum became normalized, so we didn’t notice it’s daft economics when the context changed. Buildings need maintenance, but you can skate 10 or 30 years until things get really bad, and when it comes to buildings, that means a big capital bill. Local taxing authorities are usually the only ones capable of footing these kinds of bills, because the traditional house museum model requires about an 80% operating subsidy beyond ticket sales.

4Mile Inn 1880s
especially if it is 4 miles out of town

If the first museum was state-sponsored and the first American house museum sponsored by a (uniquely American) charity Board, today we have also become quite used to the commercialization of the not-for-profit sector, despite the fact that this phenomenon is younger than me. I grew up reading ad-free Mad magazine, watching commercial-free public television, and going to museums that had never had a blockbuster show or hung a banner from their facade.

Met stepsS
When Thomas Hoving became Met director in 1967, a satirical cartoon appeared showing banners on the building. Then this satirical fantasy became reality and now everyone does it.

aic 1206s

The above image would not be normal 40 years ago, but it looks normal today. The frame has shifted. The house museums that make it are the ones with a serious multi-platform commercial operation, or at least a programmatic one that mobilizes a large enough consumer base however that base is monetized.

montpe giftS
Pens cost ten bucks. Ain’t no hand-knitted potholders here

It seems we lose a sense of the mediation within a generation or so, as context shifts. What little remains visible of the mediating frame is mistaken as the residue of an original state, rather than merely the residue of its more recent iteration. There are no original states anymore than there is an answer to the false chicken-egg dichotomy.

VM infinity mirrorS
a selfie is the image of an image, selected by the content’s imagination

Perhaps the most deceptive frame of all is again the one implied in the title of this blog: Time Tells. Because in our particular cultural context, we tend to see history in a progressive trajectory. Not only does this contradict traditional cultural paradigms (e.g. South and Southeast Asia) where time is circular and repetitive, but it is also a shockingly modern concept, arising out of the same “Enlightenment” that gave us pretty much most of our modern academic curriculum.

georgina school INT
also Canada

We can also thank the Enlightenment for reinvigorating Science, because that does offer a provable alternative to the endless confusion of cultural frames that distort our perceptions – the experiment must be replicable, reducing the effect of context. But you know what else the Enlightenment gave us? History.

medieval scholars
What, now I gotta think about it? Can’t I just copy it like before??

This is not to deny Herodotus, Thucycdides, The Venerable Bede or even the Pentateuch, but the modern sense of history as a social science divorced from morality or divine agency, is really an Enlightenment project. (Thucydides is only translated into a Latin a year before the fall of Byzantium, and thus his rediscovered realpolitik falls in the Renaissance – and he only makes it into English in 1628)

collos in82
Recognize this? It is a stone quarry from the Reniassance

I like bringing up these historical contradictions because we so often lose sight of mediation and we so often think we can see original states, but we can’t. Each of them is a cultural construct, a frame that excludes as well as it includes, a mediation that distorts as much as it perceives. I don’t like to see history used as a justification for a contemporary power struggle, but that is how it usually happens.

Solomon morris washgS
Haym Solomon and Robert Morris, who financed the American Revolution. They never got paid back. Turns out we have ALWAYS had a national debt problem.

So where do I get off thinking I can see through this? Where is my original state? Aren’t I a prisoner of my culture and my DWEM power structure? Actually, the science is simple. I’m the guy in the infinity mirror up there – I don’t need to stand outside the Milky Way to see it, but I need to rigorously compare the frames to each other so we can identify what in our current frame is a residue of an earlier frame.

greenbaum vw2
look out

Time Tells, not by revealing an original state or a “true” category, but by exposing and contrasting the accumulation of mediations, like an archaeological pit that allows us to see the context – the chicken bones and broken china and coprolites – behind the monuments.

X HY new pitS

There is of course a corresponding area of inquiry here: the perception of the exotic or the Other, which plays into much of what we do in this heritage field – especially in terms of tourism. But that will have to wait for another day. And another mediation.

taco bite truckS
Divvys and food trucks. It is your duty to support them. Welcome to 2014

Farnsworth House 2014

May 14, 2014

I have been involved with Mies van der Rohe’s famous Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois for over a decade. I recall vividly the day (December 12, 2003) Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation successfully bid on the house at Sotheby’s in New York, saving it from the possibility of being dismantled and moved to another place. Like all great architecture, the Farnsworth House was designed for its specific location along the Fox River, and this context is part of its significance.
farnsworth11 grtS
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou are more lovely and more tempered…
distant viewS

Now, that context has been altered many times. Dr. Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned the house in 1946, moved in (weekends) in 1951 and used it for twenty years, basically kept the wild landscape. When the state condemned part of her land and built a noisy road and bridge near the house in the early 1970s, she sold it to Lord Peter Palumbo, who planted trees to screen the road, landscaped the whole grounds with Lanning Roper into more of the traditional lawn we see today. Then, to top it off, the tree that framed the house from the river side finally totally died and was removed.

Farnsworth809s
with tree 2011
FH 2013 straight
without tree, 2013

But the biggest problem has been the flooding, which thanks to development upriver, has seen the houses inundated by three 100-year floods in the last 18 years. So, we at the National Trust assembled the best minds in the business in terms of architecture and engineering, to come up with a plan to help protect the house from flooding. My initial response, seen in my blog last November, was: it’s a submarine. Mies designed it for a floodplain. Let it flood and keep fixing it. As Mies’ grandson Dirk Lohan, who restored the house after the most disastrous flood in 1996, said, the house makes no sense if it is in a location that doesn’t flood.

fh angl f riv
It was Lohan who suggested what has now become the preferred alternative: To create a system of hydraulic jacks that would raise the house out of harm’s way with the onset of Fox River flooding. In short, to turn it into a lowrider.

FH 2013 frontal
where do I put the speakers? and how do I pop the clutch?

Another option was to move it to higher ground. The biggest problem with this option is that higher ground is pretty far away and thus you lose the context which caused you to save it in the first place. You get back to the Dirk Lohan problem: the building makes no sense if it is located in a place that doesn’t flood. That’s why it is sitting on stilts.
FH 2013 best
c’mere gorgeous

The other option, which some preservationists prefer, is to raise the ground it is sitting on, so it is closer to the river but 7 feet higher. This is actually just as expensive as the other options, if not more so, and arguably changes the context much more. Plus, you get the classic problem involved in all restoration decisions: what are the logistics of doing it? Preliminary investigations show that that much landfill isn’t even available, and the slope down to the river would alter the view from inside, which is kind of the whole point.
FH 2013 lvg room
i want a doctor to take your picture

All three options pretty much involve some disassembling and moving of the building. The submarine option is the only one that doesn’t, and given that floods will only get worse given all the factors causing them, constant restoration could easily cost more over the long run. So I was persuaded that Lohan’s plan, which has now been studied by Bob Silman, who is the best, is the preferred option. I gave up on the submarine.
farns lvg to deck1109s
but I will never give up on my love…

If we have to pull it apart and reassemble to some degree, it should be on the same spot and ideally in the same context. The hydraulic option offers this, although as always the devil will be in the details, such as do you leave the terrace under water or raise it too? If so, how do you deal with the point where the house joins the terrace?
FH 2013 travertn
how do I love thee? let me count the welds…

Another option discussed has been a bladder system that would use the power of the flooding water to raise the house, kind of like the giant styrofoam tubes that keep boat docks floating. Again, the excavation requires temporarily relocating the house, but there is another problem – a bladder system – like a temporary dike that would rise up and surround the house – would be subject to 600 psi of pressure from the floodwaters – not true for the hydraulic jack and truss system.

FH 2013 forest vw

I came into this project a skeptic (as did many others on the panel) and I am now convinced that the best preservation solution that conserves both the architecture and the site that the architecture was designed to feature is the hydraulic jack option. The others seem less secure (bladder/dam) or more damaging to the design (raising/relocating).

FH 1011 views

The decision has already gone through several fora and will go through several more before it is finalized. Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune summarized the options and the Trust approach in an excellent article a few weeks ago. Beyond the decision is of course the very big question of funding what will be a multi-million dollar project. Who knows, the result may prove useful for other architectural icons as the world’s oceans rise…

FH 2013 terrace hosue
i will raise you up. i will protect and cherish you….

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.

2014 UPDATE on Farnsworth House

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.


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