I recently recovered my old coin collection from my parents’ house and it got me thinking about time and value. There is a natural tendency to assume that older things have greater value, but any economic history can disprove that pretty quickly. The value of things fluctuates greatly over time, but we tend to think values go up over time.
During my teaching career, I remember having a hard time – before 2008 – explaining to students that real estate values can go down. No one at that time had ever seen that, but as a historian, I had seen it 150 years earlier.
I thought of this when someone posted on an historic preservation forum posted about having to deal with all of these people trying to donate pianos. We get a lot of those here as well, And I actually personally took a piano off someone’s hands in 2006 or 7, only to ditch it a decade later. We think that old things have value, but the fact that so many people are trying to give them away…means they don’t have value. People are trying to give them away.
I love old stuff, but that does not mean it has monetary value. I once had a woman become fairly rude when I explained that we were not going to accept a particular piece of furniture which she intended to have us display in one of our house museums. Her bold and presumptuous intention was met with a realistic collections and donation policy. Now, you might say “But that is where something like this has value! In a house museum!”
Yes, it has educational value there. But its economic value is likely a negative number. Let’s do the math. There are 10,000 Victorian homes around here of which exactly four are museums. That creates a market demand for 4 old pianos, maybe 5. Let’s say that 4,000 of those homes had pianos at one time. Basically we have 3,995 extra pianos, and let’s say, generously, that 500 of them are restored and tuned and used regularly. So now we have 3,495 old pianos and supply and demand says their value is diddley plus squat plus sweet FA, as the English would say.
That’s not even getting into the dismal economics (is that redundant?) of the house museums themselves, which require a pretty massive subsidy to survive as what they are. Your museum admission generally pays about 20% of the cost of keeping those houses. So who is paying the four-fifths and is it worth it to them?
Used, rehabbed houses are not the problem that house museums are. They have use value as well as historic value and they exist in a market where they retain value – because they are used.
But let’s get back to my coin collection. I’m sure Mom was glad to have it gone, and it can’t have much value. It reminded me of a discussion we had at Vogt Auctions in 2019 about how certain items – china, silver service, and probably pianos – no longer have monetary value because demand is gone. They had several experts letting people know that many of their treasured collections were not going to be wanted or kept by their descendants.
That does not mean there are not valuable things – they are just different than the things that were valuable 20 years ago. Mid-century Modern furniture is at a premium. Victorian furniture is on clearance.
Young’uns pay for vinyl, but I’m not sure about those cassette tapes.
It is kinda like fashion – some very strange 70s and Victorian stuff is back in vogue now, like baby doll dresses. Meanwhile I am trying to see if I can skate through a whole decade without acquiring pointy brown shoes. I know, don’t say it – it is illegal and I am in big trouble.
This will be a primarily visual blog highlighting some of the heritage sites I saw this past month which I had not seen before. First is the Tuberculosis sanitarium houses on Zarzamora here in San Antonio.
Built starting in 1938, this complex of a dozen buildings features red tile roofs and southwestern style sun-baked wall finishes. TB patients would each get a small cubic house with plenty of windows and really sweet architectural details.
Gotta love a real steel casement window. They rolled that steel 7 or 8 times to get those delicate profiles. Nothing like it today.
University Health Systems owns them and uses some for offices and some for storage. We are hoping that several can be preserved in the long-term, focusing on those built in the 1938-48 period of initial construction. The overall feeling is like you are on a 1920s silent movie set!
We also got to tour the Sisson House, a very early house adjacent to the acequia at Mission San Jose. The American Indians in Texas are planning to create their museum there. The house is owned by the National Park Service.
The fun part here is trying to figure out which section was built when. There are two structures, and parts of the main house here appear to be wood, but a rear portion is stone and/or caliche block.
Did they take stone from the abandoned mission and build an addition? The rear building has a surprisingly deep basement – was it built first? I love these kind of forensic escapades with knowledgeable historic architects around as we debate potential answers.
Even the double munched standing seam metal roof has a curious proportion on the shed addition.
The next treasure is in Billings, Montana and it is a house museum. I have seen many, many house museums, but the Moss Mansion in Billings is really something. Built in 1903 and designed by Henry Hardenbergh of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel and Dakota Apartments, this house was an exercise in architectural styles, beginning with the insanely detailed Moorish foyer:
To the left is a library so paneled and English that is has a stained glass window of William Shakespeare, while to the right is a room so French and pink you expect Louis XIV-XVI to materialize out of thin air.
The level of architectural detail is really off the hook – this house did not do a wall finish, but a wainscot, a wall finish, a crown finish and a relief plastered ceiling in every room in every style. Here is the parlor beyond the library in a Nouveau style:
The crown molding here in the study is about 8 inches high and 4 inches deep
Not only is there a massive bathroom on the second floor with tile all over the floors and walls, but even the ceiling is tiled with rosettes at every corner:
horror vacui non potest
Dining room detail. The other side of the room has stained glass.
Not only did they have the first telephone in town (and owned the company, if memory serves) they also had electric hair curlers in every bathroom, and massive ice boxes in the pantry.
This house survived because it stayed in the family until the 1980s. Reminds me of the Maverick Carter House here in San Antonio, which is STILL in the same family, has a similar vintage and a similar Richardsonian Romanesque exterior.
Entry, Maverick Carter House, San Antonio
I actually toured that one back in August, so it doesn’t count for September.
Here’s me with Stephen Cavender at the Audi Dominion, which replaced a Robert Hugman house that was not known at the time. We are standing by a plaque recalling the house and there is an area that uses stones from the property to create a small rest area whilst the house outlines are traced on the lot.
Finally a wonderful courtyard with a tile waterfall design from O’Neil Ford’s incomparable Trinity University, listed on the National Register of Historic Places this year and the site of the city’s second Living Heritage Symposium! That deserves another blog…
In the 1950s, Colonial Williamsburg was the number one tourist attraction in the United States. Its “living history” displays within the carefully curated town landscape were a novel attraction, and many other sites across the U.S. from Mystic Seaport to Lincoln’s New Salem followed their lead. It was the dawn of television and big-finned automobiles: living history was hot.
That was seventy years ago. Last year, Colonial Williamsburg reported it had lost $277 million in five years, laid off 71 staff and sold properties to avoid further hits against its endowment. This summer it celebrated avoiding layoffs and reducing its debt to $317 million. Conner Prairie in Indiana boasts of 11 years of breaking even after an economic debacle in the early 2000s. Old Sturbridge Village brings in $2 million in admissions but breaks even on a $12 million budget thanks to investments, property sales, and major gifts. Plimoth Plantation has seen ticket sales drop 30% in the last 30 years and now has a labor dispute with its suddenly unionized interpreters. Civil War reenactments draw a fraction of the spectators they did in their 1990s heyday. Living history is no longer hot.
Don’t get me started on the coureurs de bois
Sound management is helping Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village and Conner Prairie survive, but are they thriving? Clever programming has some sites increasing attendance, but none are approaching the quantities of visitors found in the heyday of living history in the 20th century. Premier sites like Colonial Williamsburg or Ironbridge Gorge in England draw half a million visitors a year. But they used to draw twice that. $20 million in admissions might seem like a lot until you compare it to an annual operating deficit of $50 million.
good old days in New Jersey
The advent of the Millennial generation, whose interactions with the physical world are mediated through smartphones, raises the question: Is there a future for living history? The demographics are worrying: In 2012 20.5% of Americans 18-24 visited a historic site, down 8 percentage points since 2002.
with Inn four miles of Denver
Many sites have raised ticket prices to overcome declining attendance and Colonial Williamsburg is considering building a fence around the site to capture more ticket sales. Some sites excel with school groups, but school groups rarely pay, exacerbating the economic challenge.
There are positive reports from some sites about developing more “immersive” experiences that appeal to more people. This runs counter to the trend in house museums, where the guided tour and costumed interpreter have given place to the self-guided tour.
It isn’t simply generational – it is also technology. For 30 years, technology has been giving individuals more control (at whatever quality) over printing, photography, navigation, communication, and determining how you spend your day. Most tourists today expect to control their experience in a way unimaginable 30 years ago.
In the next five years we will learn whether a new generation wants to witness and interact with costumed interpreters or just keep their finger on the pulse of their smartphone.
Does Living History have a future? And how much will it cost?
Sources and Further Reading:
“Historic Sites Face Modern Day Pressures” Virginia Gazette, September 16, 2018
“The Decline of the Civil War Re-enactor” New York Times Magazine, July 28, 2018
“Americans Declining Interest in History is Hitting Museums Like Colonial Williamsburg Hard” The Federalist, August 22, 2017.
“Colonial Williamsburg is still $317 million in debt, but things are looking up” The Virginian Pilot September 15, 2018
“CEO: Colonial Williamsburg’s financial outlook improves; no layoffs planned.” Daily Express, September 16, 2018
Old Sturbridge Village 2016 Annual Report
Conner Prairie 2016 Annual Report
Twelve years and 502 blogs ago, I began “Time Tells” – my little blog about heritage conservation, architecture, planning, technology and economics. I have moved three times in those dozen years and now live in San Antonio, one of the pioneering preservation places in the United States.
Alfred Giles emigrated to America in the 1870s after studying architecture in his native England. Moving to San Antonio from New York in 1875, he became one of the most prolific and important architects in San Antonio. In 1875 he designed the stunning Second Empire Steves Homestead in the King William District, which is open daily for tours. Continue Reading
I am living in an historic building that was moved more than a mile from its original location, from the King William district, the first historic district in Texas.
This is the 1881 Oge carriage house, now located near the Yturri-Edmunds house, which is in its original location near Mission Road. Our San Antonio Conservation Society moved the house here in order to save it. On the same property we also have the Postert House, an 1850 palisado cabin which was similarly moved in order to save it from demolition. In fact, I remember very well in 1985 when San Antonio set a record for moving the largest building that had ever been relocated on wheels, the 1906 Fairmount Hotel. Continue Reading