September sightings

October 2, 2018 House Museums, House Museums, Texas Comments (0) 78

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.

A bedroom.

Another bedroom.

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…

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Does Living History Have A Future?

September 18, 2018 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums, Interpretation Comments (0) 177

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

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A dozen years and counting

August 1, 2017 Historic Districts, House Museums, House Museums, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 617

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.

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Farnsworth House 2015

June 21, 2015 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Sustainability, Technology Comments (1) 1377

Last week.  Maybe next week too.

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. Continue Reading

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Transforming Heritage Philanthropy

May 13, 2015 Economics, House Museums, Sustainability Comments (0) 660

President Lincoln’s Cottage, Washington DC

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. Continue Reading

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Mediation and the Myth of Original States

August 11, 2014 History, House Museums Comments (1) 463

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.

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.

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. Continue Reading

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Farnsworth House 2014

May 14, 2014 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Interpretation, Sustainability Comments (6) 799

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou are more lovely and more tempered…

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. Continue Reading

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Commercial and Interpretive

November 15, 2013 House Museums, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (3) 752

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.

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. Continue Reading

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Historical Societies

August 22, 2012 History, House Museums, Interpretation Comments (1) 536

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…. Continue Reading

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Selling Out or Keeping It Real?

July 4, 2012 China Preservation, Economics, House Museums, Sustainability Comments (0) 570

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. Continue Reading

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