The Lasting Legacy of America’s Historic Houses

“The era of historic houses has passed. There are too many houses out there that are becoming stagnant or shrines to an old way of life or a disappearing family,” states Jonathan Maney of the Hyde Hall Mansion of Springfield Center, New York, “In order to stay relevant these museums must begin looking at what other contributions they can bring to their surrounding society.”

With this in mind, many of today’s historic house museums are turning to creative and unorthodox ways to not only bring in revenue, but to attract a completely new generation of visitors. John James Audobon’s Mills Grove estate in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania has been completely repurposed from a replication of the author’s home to an art center. The Olana Partnership in Hudson, New York has not completely changed their mission, but has decided to expand their interpretation into what was once a story about Frederick E. Church into a concentration on American painting as whole.

Museum professionals are making strides in their attempts to keep these historic houses relevant and exciting while still bringing in the revenue to maintain the historic value of the property. Does the prestige or value of a historic house plummet if it is converted into a Bed & Breakfast or taken up as a private residence? How do we decide what sites are more relevant than others, and which ones should be preserved solely as museums?

-Sammy Smithson

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12 Responses to The Lasting Legacy of America’s Historic Houses

  1. meghangewerth says:

    This is a difficult dilemma because a balance needs to be struck between preserving/ presenting history and being able to survive as an institution. I think the key is being able to connect them to the community – institutions should ask themselves that if they change to include these other ways of bringing in revenue, will it help better connect them to and benefit the community? This idea of alternative stewardship, if it adequately protects the museum’s collections, provides a way to strike the balance that is needed.

    – Meghan Gewerth

    • Great insight, Meghan. I agree that alternative stewardship is a serious alternative and more historic houses should be considering it. Do you (or anyone else) think that a visitor’s experience could be altered in a negative or positive way with alternative stewardship?

  2. carlyfaison says:

    Sammy, you ask important but also difficult questions. Yes, it very well could be that the value of a historic house as a traditional museum plummets when it becomes a Bed and Breakfast. BUT if nobody is visiting the historic house and it is not useful to the public than who is to say a B&B isn’t more effective in the long run? I don’t think it’s necessary or interesting to have a surplus of historic houses as we traditionally think of them. The steps being taken at Mills Grove are encouraging to me because they are promoting community outreach and connecting the past to the present in an engaging way.

    • As discussed in class, it is difficult to gauge on whether or not a historic house is “useful to public.” Even if the public is not visiting, they still seem resistant to losing the historical house. We must figure out how to get the public on board.

  3. Olivia says:

    Hi Sammy!

    If you haven’t been to Olana, I encourage you to take advantage of your proximity while in Cooperstown and go see what it’s like there for yourself. Perhaps I caught it on a bad day; beautiful site and amazing vistas, but I was very disappointed by the rote tour (which was decidedly about … Frederic Church) and my feelings were shared by the rest of the (well) paying customers/”guests” (I certainly didn’t feel like a guest…more like an intruder).

    I think it’s okay to admit that some of these places branding themselves/being touted as “drastic” are not, in fact, really doing anything unorthodox with the visitor experience. I don’t mean to pick on Olana — you can sub in countless other historic houses and it’s the same old “stand and listen in one room; stand and listen in the next; be completely discouraged from displaying any emotion or having any fun” etc. that has clearly driven visitors away; and yet we can’t seem to come up with a better way? As someone in the field I KNOW there is no easy answer, but we need to keep holding each other accountable! My organization has found great success in our grantwriting by incorporating “fail, try again” into our project timelines – funders are sharing our frustrations with the stagnation of historic houses and are excited to see us at least TRY new ideas. So, let’s keep demanding more from historic houses! It’s great that you are interested in alternative uses for these sites and how to engage the public to create better experiences that actually mean something to the community. Keep up the good work!

    Olivia ’12

    • Thank you for your reply, Olivia! We were just talking in class about the nature of historic house tours. I think that historic houses might be afraid to try new things- they have a precious place that they are trying to preserve, but if it’s not working as is, what’s the harm in changing things up? I will have to check out Olana.

  4. emilykp47 says:

    Perhaps one way historic houses can remain relevant is to make connections between the past and the present. Programs that show how people lived in historic houses and how that connect to contemporary life could be both educational and entertaining. I wonder what kinds of programs different historic houses have tried to increase attendance and remain relevant.

    • Great point, Emily! I agree with you completely that historic houses must be connecting to contemporary issues. I think that all museums should be looking for a way to bring the past and present together.

  5. maolsen13 says:

    This is such a great conversation! I do very much agree with Carly in that if no one is visiting the museum alternative stewardship seems practical. I personally would rather see a historic house get turned into a B&B then see it torn down. At least this way the home is still around to enjoy. However, I do think it is important not to just jump to something like a B&B. We need to consider ways to use the space in a way that involves the community while making a profit; ultimately making it possible to keep the doors open. There is a very delicate balance here and it will be interesting to see what happens with these historic houses in the next few years.

    • Alternative stewardship is not only practical, but exciting! Many new opportunities to get creative with how the public interacts with history. I agree that community involvement is key of the transition from historic house to something else is going to work.

  6. gretchensorin says:

    How will you know if the sites you site as innovative are really “making strides?” Have they done any assessment? Are more people visiting?

  7. caitlinmccaffrey11 says:

    I think that many historic homes do need to try new forms of engagement to avoid being stuck in a pattern of dull tours about a family or person, whom people may or may not still care about. I was truly impressed with some of the programs held at The Mount, in Massachusetts. There are poetry readings, and writing programs held for the community, which hold great relevance considering that Edith Wharton (whose home it was) was one of the great American authors. The historic house even holds ghost walks, which 9 times out of 10 are cheesy and awful at best. However, Wharton wrote incredible eerie and spooky stories, therefore the ghost walks are a fun and engaging tribute to her writing legacy. These are the types of mission driven, outside-the-box activities that historic homes need to try in order to maintain relevance and importance.

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