Posts Tagged ‘house museums’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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.

President Lincoln’s Cottage

May 19, 2010

We held the retirement party for longtime National Trust President Richard Moe at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., one of the newest National Trust historic sites and a fitting place to pay tribute to a leader who helped transform the preservation movement into a vital, relevant force for how people decide the future of their communities in this country. Dick Moe took a collection of mansions and made it a representation of our multiple cultures, from Acoma Sky Pueblo to the East Side Tenement Museum, from Tuoro Synagogue to the Gaylord Building, from the Farnsworth House to the Hotel De Paris. He ushered the fight against sprawl and the struggle for sustainability into the heart of the preservation movement. You can’t posit a more transformative leader. Moe will remain involved at Lincoln Cottage, an 1840s Victorian cottage where the 16th President spent a full quarter of his Presidency.

I was intrigued by the interpretation of the Lincoln Cottage. First, a separate historic building, a lovely tile-roofed Renaissance Revival building from 1905 serves as the Robert H. Smith Visitors Center. This was one of the first LEED certified Gold historic rehabs, fulfilling the sustainability mission Moe set out for the Trust three years ago.

Now, many historic sites use tour guides, and many use short introductory films, videos, and audio and signage as interpretation. None of this is new. But President Lincoln’s Cottage combined these traditional forms in a new way. You begin with a 7-minute video about Lincoln and the cottage, but it is projected on three window shades, which at the conclusion rise up to reveal the cottage beyond. You then follow the guide to the cottage itself, but rather than simply one voice, the guide triggers video and audio in various rooms, detailing both the character of Lincoln and the nature of the house and his occupancy of it.

Too often museum professionals and others take an “either-or” approach, charging headlong into technology or remaining staid in a timeworn approach to touring a site. I like the model here, because it keeps the visitor engaged with the video and audio in a way that does not happen when it is only the media and the participant alone. Moreover, it provides that alternating voice that is so essential to maintaining interest in a story. There is an arc to the narrative, centered on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, and I have to say I did not realize the full breadth and nuance of that story until I toured President Lincoln’s Cottage.

The house itself is relatively barren – only a few period pieces of furniture – the Lincolns would haul their furniture up the 3 miles from the White House – and we have little knowledge about how the second floor was used for bedrooms, but the interpretation not only acknowledges all this, it makes it an advantage. Jim Vaughan, Vice President for Historic Sites at the Trust, said he has been trying to move beyond the velvet ropes at historic sites for thirty years and this site has no velvet ropes. But it ropes you into its story and its sense of place and provides a good model for how to bring historic sites to life.

SEPTEMBER 2011 UPDATE: For updates on earthquake damage at President Lincoln’s Cottage, go to Preservation Nation

Pleasant Home

March 25, 2010

I have been involved with the Pleasant Home Foundation in some fashion almost since it was set up in the early 90s by a group that included former SAIC President Tony Jones. I moved to Oak Park in the later 90s and had a regular gig talking to groups there every May, offering insights into the relationship of Pleasant Home’s architect, George Washington Maher, and his more famous contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright. Maher designed Pleasant Home in 1897 and you could argue he achieved many aspects of the Prairie School idiom a year or two before Wright. (The name comes from the streets – Pleasant and Home – whose intersection it occupies.)

The house has the broad eaves, overhanging hipped roof and decidedly horizontal massing of the Prairie School. It also has urns flanking the entrance and is centered on the hearth/fireplace, a device Wright also used.

Both Wright and Maher had worked together in the office of Joseph Lyman Silsbee, who developed very sculptural proto-modern compositions in the Shingle Style, which emphasized continuous surfaces, one of the often-overlooked but essential markers of the Modern. Maher started his own practice several years before Wright, and admittedly was more conventional in his compositions, employing a rhythm-motif theory whereby key elements – in Pleasant Home a shield, a tray and a lion – were repeated in stone, wood and stained glass ornament.


Like many early Prairie homes, Pleasant Home was a large house for a wealthy client – John Farson – during the dawn of the Progressive Era and the American century, when business people wanted to appear forward-looking. Modernity aside, it was a big, fancy house. It passed to the Mills family in the early 20th century and eventually to the Oak Park Park District in 1939, and over time senior activities were organized on the lower floor while the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest occupied the upstairs. In the 1990s Tony Jones and others crafted the Pleasant Home Foundation to operate the house as a museum, although it still gets only a fraction of the visitors who come to see the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio a half-mile to the north (on the same street!).

So I have lectured there and brought groups to the house under the previous Director, Mary Beth Blattner, who had the house listed as a National Historic Landmark, and the current one, Laura Mercier Thompson, who just got a letter from First Lady Michelle Obama announcing that Pleasant Home had become one of the newest stewardship sites of Preserve America, a national program administered by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. It is a big deal, one of a couple Executive-level programs, along with Save America’s Treasures, that recent Presidents have instituted.

I have been pleased to be involved a little with the Restoration Committee at Pleasant Home, and our students did HABS drawings of the house back in 2000-2001. I recall one time when the library restoration was being discussed and we were trying to determine whether a certain lamp was from the Farson era or the Mills era, and Kathy Cummings (the expert on George Washington Maher) and I noticed a calendar on the wall in an undated photo, which we were able to use to determine the date of the photo and help guide the restoration. It was a fun “detective” moment.

Another moment occurred five years ago when the front gate was being restored at a metal shop in a nearby suburb and architects John Thorpe, Frank Heitzman, Leslie Gilmore and I were looking at the proposed “shield” pattern for the crown of the gate and realized it did not match the photo. John sat down on the floor of the shop and sketched out the correct pattern.

I have been too busy the last couple of years to participate much with the Restoration Committee, although they did bring me back last summer to give my old “Wright and Maher” side-by-side slide lecture. But you should visit – it is a half block from the train line (Metra and CTA) and now it is most deservedly a Preserve America Steward.

Roger Brown Study Collection

December 15, 2009


I have blogged several times about Hull House and its approaches to interpretation of historic sites – in fact, “Hull House Again” is my most-visited blog post. I have also blogged about the Gaylord Building on several occasions, where I served as Chair of the Site Council for six years. Another role of mine this decade has been as a member of the Roger Brown Study Collection Steering Committee, involved in the preservation, interpretation and educational implementation of the property and collection at 1926 N. Halsted in Chicago.

The site itself is an increasingly rare but once common two-story 1880s building that originally had a storefront and 3 apartments. A successful and influential Chicago painter associated with a 1970s-80s group labeled the Imagists, Roger and his partner George Veronda converted 1926 N. Halsted into a studio and home beginning in the 1970s. Over the course of two decades Roger produced much of his work here in his first floor studio and amassed a nearly overwhelming collection of art from the fine to the folk to the kitsch to the ephemeral that bedecks the second floor, the staircases and nearly every available space.

The place is literally packed with the collection as Roger had displayed it, or more appropriately, lived with it. My students both graduate and undergraduate really appreciate the place as a four-dimensional example of an artistic environment and as a stunning project of conservation and interpretation.

I serve on the Steering Committee with a roster of famous artists who knew and worked with Roger, and whose works are included in the collection, including Gladys Nillson, Jim Nutt, and Barbara Rossi. Nick Lowe from Arts Administration and Policy, is doing an amazing project documenting – and creating miniatures of – Roger Brown’s California home and collection, to be at Hyde Park Arts Center this spring.

The incomparable Lisa Stone curates and manages the collection, and like her South Halsted counterpart Lisa Lee, has made the site an educational experience of uncommon depth. You always experience something new there. I had my students sketch whatever they liked in the studio and when I reviewed their sketches a couple of weeks later I saw things I had never seen.

What strikes me about historic sites are the accidental details, the mundane but telling forensics of the everyday. At Roger Brown I always show everyone the medicine cabinet, still filled with toothbrushes, Maalox, cotton swabs and other typical accoutrements. I saw the house shortly after Roger donated it to the School of the Art Institute in 1996, the year before his death, and was struck at that time by its time capsule quality: underwear stacked neatly in the closet, toothbrushes in the medicine cabinet, spice containers in the kitchen. The details of everyday life.

The fact that I can still see that medicine cabinet is oddly comforting. At times we feared that the School would deaccession the building. While the collection might be saved in that scenario, to have the collection in its original context is geometrically more educational. Somehow the medicine cabinet is that slice of everyday which grounds and makes real the rest of the collection.

It is striking the various educational programs that have taken place in the building. Our historic preservation graduate students restored the storefront in Neal Vogel’s class and cleaned graffiti from the side in Bill Latoza’s class and have helped document the collection and assess the building. This past Spring we did an interpretive project for the adjacent Armitage-Halsted District and met with Alderman Vi Daley in the building during and after the project.

Like Hull House, the Roger Brown collection is not simply preserving a place and its objects: it is preserving the purpose of a place by extending that purpose. Roger Brown made art in this building and a world of art and artists swirled through its interior for two decades: after he moved to California the gallery Intuit occupied the first floor. The School of the Art Institute is not simply preserving the building, it is preserving the importance of the building by extending that artistic and educational mission dozens of times every single semester with students of every age and background. That is what our field – heritage conservation – is all about.

November 2010 UPDATE: The Roger Brown Home & Studio is about to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places! Great work by Susannah Ribstein and of course Lisa Stone.

What’s Going On At Robie House II

July 29, 2009

Well, many months have passed but people are still looking at my blog last fall about Robie House so an update with the status is in order. First, the exciting news is that the latest phase of reconstruction is just about complete so you can visit Robie House – in Chicago’s Hyde Park – without the distractions of major construction work going on. PLUS, there are now available – in limited numbers and by reservation ONLY – a private tour that includes the long-sought, almost-never-seen third floor, where the bedrooms are. Yes, Robie House is a three-story building, despite all that dynamic steamship horizontality.
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Most importantly, the aspect that originally got me hot and bothered about the rehab – closing up for tours – is gone. Robie House is accessible to tours FIVE days a week – Thursday through Monday. You can also still get tickets for tours just by showing up. There are also tours that pair Robie House with the neighborhood. Find out about all the tours at: http://www.wrightplus.org/robiehouse/tours.php.
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They also have tours based on some of the popular books out about Wright and Robie, including Boyle’s The Women, which raises questions to me: Why is Wright – with three wives and one major mistress – such a big deal? Have you catalogued the marriages and liaisons of Mies and Gropius? They were at least his equal, as was Charlie Chaplin. Ah, but they have an advantage when it comes to liaisons that Wright didn’t – they were European, not American, and certainly not Midwestern. Pity the Plains Puritan.

House. Museum.

July 10, 2009

The news officially broke yesterday that Landmarks Illinois would cease to be the operating partner for the Farnsworth House, a National Trust Historic Site and one of the great modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s most significant buildings. Landmarks Illinois joined John Bryan and the National Trust in buying the Farnsworth House at Sotheby’s auction house in December, 2003, thus saving it from a potentially devastating move away from its riverine location in Plano, Illinois.
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In 2003, the National Trust was already well aware of the problems associated with operating house museums, having held a conference entitled “Are There Too Many House Museums” 18 months earlier. The historic significance of this conference has only swelled in the ensuing seven years, although arguably the Fox River has swelled even more, coming within inches of the house in 2007 and inundating it in 2008, a mere 12 years after the last 100-year flood. Here’s the wardrobe, where you can see the flood damage – and this is only a 12-year old replacement from 1996.
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The added hassle and expense of major repairs occasioned by the floods and by ongoing issues stemming from its age and design led Landmarks Illinois to cut ties after having set up a solid operating procedure and staff, while still losing money. The National Trust, created by Congress in the 1940s for the express purpose of operating house museums, is the acknowledged leader on the issue. Which is why it was the first to ask that key question “Are There Too Many House Museums” and why it has a broad base (some 30 sites) for understanding the issues involved. (Full disclosure – I have been on the boards of both organizations for the last few years.)
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Make no mistake: The Farnsworth House is fantastic. There are many buildings in this world I knew first through photographs and then was disappointed when I saw them live. Farnsworth is not one of them – seeing it for real was a revelation, as all great art is when you encounter it. Many more eloquent people have written about it so suffice to say it is a perfect Greek temple. I will take 100 people there next week on two tours and it is definitely worth the hour’s drive from Chicago and more.
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But the Farnsworth House – like most National Trust sites – is an exception. The United States is full of house museums, most of them run by local historical societies, most of which were formed for the express initial purpose of saving the house of a community founder or other early architectural and historical landmark.
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These are noble goals, and part of the goal is to insure that the entire public can visit and appreciate these sites. We were at one such last week, a 1783 Dutch colonial farmhouse built by the earliest settlers that was saved and preserved by descendants of those settlers way back in 1916. And visited by descendants of those settlers last week, namely my wife and daughters.
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I like these places. I like to visit them and I have also been impressed with how so many of them have done more creative interpretation in recent years. One of our favorite phrases at the National Trust is “beyond the velvet ropes,” which is to say house museums need to break out of the old museum box, take some curatorial risks and become more interactive and dynamic. The reason is obvious. If the velvet ropes stay where they are, you visit the house with your fourth-grade class and then YOU NEVER GO BACK AGAIN because you have already seen it.
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The problem is a basic economic one. To run a museum – especially a house museum – you need some source to cover about 80 percent of operating costs. When the National Trust did a survey several years ago they found that the average house museum took in $8 per visitor and spent nearly $40 per visitor. That means that admissions covered about 20 percent of costs. I have done a little research on this issue and guess what – it was always like that. It was like that in the 1910s when William Sumner Appleton preserved houses for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and funded 80 percent of operations himself. It was like that in 1920s Charleston when a similar society purchased the Manigault House in order to save it – and had to buy it again, twice, within ten years until a major benefactor was found. It was like that when the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation bought the Glessner House in 1966 and basically leased office space in the building and started a docent tour program to subsidize the costs.
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Most historic house museums are a fiscal nightmare. Which ones do well, or at least survive? There are several models. One is to have an endowment which can cover a certain percentage of annual operating costs, and many sites have this. Another is to have an income-producing property, which we have at the Gaylord Building. Another is to raise the volume of tourism to such a high level that it can provide more than 20 percent of operating, which they do at Fallingwater. Another is to raise the admission prices high enough to cover the costs. This can work at world famous sites, but it patently won’t work at local historical societies whose purpose is to save the building for the people. Another is to have a successful gift shop, a source of income the Frank Lloyd Wright sites have had good fortune with, and of course this is also the model many traditional museums use to make ends meet.
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Another model is the one no one wants to talk about but is becoming increasingly necessary in order to preserve these buildings: put them back in private hands. The fact of the matter is that the economics of a home and economics of a public facility are completely different – people make economically unjustifiable decisions about spending money on their homes all the time – just look out of the airplane window at all of the swimming pools. Private owners also mean less wear and tear on historic fabric. Fallingwater spent many millions correcting deflection of its slabs and acknowledges it will need to do so again before long due to the volume of tourists.
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I was an early advocate of a private owner saving the River Forest Women’s Club because it was clear no public owner had the money to restore it after many years of deferred maintenance. The problem with private ownership is that it defeats the basic impulse of having everyone appreciate the house, although in many cases the properties are made available to the public on a limited or annual basis, in events like Oak Park’s Wright Plus every May. Most properties covered by preservation easements are private, but the easements require some sort of token annual opening to the public, which is common on community and neighborhood house and garden walks. I remember being in Pontefract, Yorkshire in the 1990s and having the good fortune of being there the only day of the year the Hermitage was open, so we were able to descend this 60-foot spiral staircase into the earth and see it. Public ownership is also of course subject to public monies – witness the indefinite closing of a dozen Illinois historic sites last year, or the drastic reduction in opening hours that has affected other sites. Sometimes once a year is a lot.
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By far the most exciting model for making a house museum economically viable is the one that Hull House in Chicago and Brucemore in Cedar Rapids have used: become the center of the community, a place where things are always changing, always interesting, and always interactive. To do this requires discarding curatorial imperatives or at least finding space for dynamic interaction with the public. It also requires an uncommon leadership ability and uncommon creativity.
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At the National Trust, we will continue to work on these sticky issues and come up with new models, just as we will continue to work on the Farnsworth House, raising an endowment so it can maintain public access as much as possible.

Hull House Again

March 10, 2009

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Well, I took my grad students to the Jane Addams Hull House Museum and Director Lisa Lee did it again – wowed everyone with her enthusiasm and creativity in reimagining what a house museum is. Not that Jane Addams’ Hull House was ever a typical house museum – preserved under duress during the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the house was sort of a shrine to Addams herself and the institution she created, which still exists elsewhere. It was also subject to an absolutely bizarre restoration – you can see my 2003 research on the subject at http://tigger.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/urbanexp/main.cgi?file=new/show_doc.ptt&doc=834&chap=32.
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Addams was all about the radical democracy of speech and free interchange of ideas, and solidarity much more than service. The “residents” of Hull House were people who could live elsewhere but chose to live among working class immigrants, not simply to “help” them but to be with them and learn from them. It was a melding of public and private space and it was an extension of the ideals of a nurturing family to the entire city. I learn something new everytime I go there. They have even started the cell phone tours that will soon be EVERYWHERE
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Anyway, Lisa reported that they recently received an NEH grant to put into practice her radical reimagining of this historic site. They are going to restore Jane Addams’s bedroom while they continue to make the main floor of the house a hybrid interactive museum space that interprets the many stories of Hull House, of the women (and some men) who gave us public health, public schools, playgrounds, parks, child labor laws, universal suffrage and a whole lot of art. Lisa talked about art today and it was a taut reminder that art must be in the everyday because it acculturates the other things we do. I suppose many schools will cut art in the name of the current economic conditions, as they often do, but it is no more separable from the body politic than your left arm. Yes, you can cut it off, but the rest won’t function nearly as well. Lisa also repeated the things she learned about TRUTH in South Africa. There are four kinds of truth: Forensic truth – the provable, scientific kind; narrative truth, which is what each of us tells ourselves about ourselves and our experiences; dialogic truth, which is the truth we share with others and thus not identical to our personal narrative truth; and finally restorative truth, which is the hardest of all because…I think because it requires a reckoning of all three other truths. This is what they were doing at Hull House HISTORICALLY and what they are doing there NOW.
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I have blogged before about the “Rethinking Soup” they do at Hull House every Tuesday that carries not just the MESSAGE of the building but its historic PRACTICE into the present day, fomenting modern conversations about things like food and health and sustainability just as the Hull House residents debated these subjects for generations in the same space.
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This is how historic interpretation should be done; a combination of third person, second person and first person, not one or the other, but all of them. That is the beauty of Jane Addams’ original Hull House – it was experimental and open, it evolved constantly, and it was constantly reinvented and reinvigorated by new blood. Which is what every museum – every institution really – needs to be to be relevant and worth preserving.
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Hull House was saved at a time when house museums were shrines, when they told singular, uninflected and generally SAFE stories. Jane Addams’ Hull House museum is one of the best in the world right now because it is always experimenting, never safe and fueled by the energy of people like Lisa Lee. Half of my students wanted to BE her after the visit. Her energy is that infectious. How do you bottle that? That is the great challenge of interpretation, which if it works, is a constant reinterpretation, and like Einsteinian physics, that interpretation understands that the interpretation itself is affected not only by the interpreters but by the viewers. Hence, it is best if they are both, which they are at Hull House. Go. See for yourself. Better yet, see, hear, touch, taste and feel for yourself. Better yet again, do for yourself. It is the story of transformation, of immigration, of a constant arriving and redefining, of the formation and reformation of self and society.

2010 UPDATE: See my posting on the brand new reinterpretation of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum HERE!