Selling House Museums

December 14, 2023 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums Comments (0) 93

The Historic Charleston Foundation has decided to sell the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House, which the Foundation has owned and operated as a house museum since 1955. The news has sparked a backlash from those who want it to stay open to the public. Yet many, including house museum expert Donna Harris, have lauded the Foundation’s decision as a way to bring preservation into the 21st century.

I get it. Last year the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation sold the 1876 Steves Homestead, which it had owned for 70 years and operated as a house museum. As we removed furniture from the house, someone asked if I was sad that it would not be open to the public. I said: “No, my goal is to preserve buildings. Will it be preserved better by having four people live in it or having 40,000 people tromp through it each year?”

Unlike the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Conservation Society Foundation did not decide to market the house museum we sold. We responded to an unsolicited offer and now it is being returned to its original use as a home. That is in line with #1 of the 10 Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which states that a building should be used for its original purpose. No house museum can, by definition, meet this standard.

That bit of petty legalism aside, it is important to remember the basic facts of house museums over the last twelve decades. First, they lose money. Typically, visitation can cover no more than 20-25% of operating costs. That was true in 1910 and 1930 and 1950 and 1980 and it is still true. William Sumner Appleton was subsidizing 80% of his house museum costs in the 1920s. The Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings – also in Charleston – learned the pitfalls of the house museum solution in the 1920s and 30s when they bought and saved the Manigault House three times. That’s why Charleston created the first historic district in the United States – because house museums don’t work.

The house museums that thrive make up that 75% operating deficit one of three ways:

  1. An endowment (Glass House, Gaylord Building, Villa Finale)
  2. Very high ticket price (Biltmore, Taliesin)
  3. A gift shop/merch operation that can add a $35 book or handkerchief to every $12 ticket (Frank Lloyd Wright sites).

For the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation, which has almost a century of its own history to look back upon, we can see that our mission – saving buildings – is not best served by owning everything. We bought Casa Navarro in 1959 and sold it to the state in 1974. We bought the Aztec Theatre in 1988 and sold it to a private owner in 1993. We have bought another dozen buildings in the heart of San Antonio and turned them over to forever owners with a preservation easement on each to insure their long-term conservation. That’s how you do it.

I served many years as Vice Chair of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Sites Committee. The Trust was created by Congress in 1949 to receive house museums. But by the early 2000s it was already clear that the house museum model was not functional, as I blogged about in 2008 and 2012. When Stephanie Meeks became National Trust CEO her first question to me was “Would you ever consider selling one of our historic sites?” and my answer was “In a New York minute, if it was better for the preservation of the building.”

Cooper-Molera Adobe, Monterey, California. One of the National Trust Sites we helped evolve from traditional house museum. I blogged about it in 2011 and then again in 2013. 95% of preservation is adaptive re-use and as that 2013 blog explains, new productive uses do not necessarily impede the learning mission of a site. In fact, they can enhance it and bring it to more people.

To quote from my own blog ten years ago: “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.”

JANUARY UPDATE: Well, the backlash was so strong that HCF reversed its decision. Enough people showed up with enough “investment” of one kind or another.

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