Selling House Museums

December 14, 2023 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums Comments (0) 152

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. Check back in twenty years.

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History is about Everything

July 25, 2022 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Economics, History, Texas Comments (0) 728

“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

  • Mark Twain

I have always loved history because it contains everything. It is full of contradictions, replete with exceptions that prove the rule, and layered with conflicting motivations, unintended consequences, and outright paradoxes. Those of us who promote history by preserving historic sites revel in this depth and complexity. It isn’t simply that more stories can be told from each place. You can also attract more visitors, and thus complexity adds money as well.

Crockett (1882), Palace (1926) and Woolworth (1921) buildings on Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, 2022

This was one of the big arguments we made about preserving the Woolworth Building with its important Civil Rights history across from the Alamo (see this blog for example). Under the old plan, you would get Alamo battle tourists only. By adding another layer to the depth of history told, you get more tourists. That means more money. That’s why everyone was so excited when the Alamo and the other San Antonio Missions became a World Heritage Site in 2015 (my blog at the time).* Because that adds another story – the story of the missions, the Franciscans, soldiers and indigenous people who first populated the city in the 18th century. More stories = more tourists = more money.

Alamo with reconstructed palisade and latest cannon addition (fifth one in last four years!)

I bring this up because some tabloids and their online siblings have been attacking various National Trust historic sites for being “w*ke” or adopting “CRT” or some other cryptohistoric political claptrap they invented. Being tabloids, they strive to paint sites onto one side of the political spectrum by outright lying that they are only interpreting these sites one way.

Cooper-Molera Adobe – a National Trust site where they tell the stories of both the Coopers and the Moleras!

Wrong. Also stupid. Also you lose money because you shut out stories that attract more and different people. Diversity is always going to be economically richer. One of those maligned by the knuckle-draggers was Montpelier, which I visited as a Trustee of the National Trust some years ago.

Montpelier under restoration

The main point of interpretation was James Madison and the Constitution, which it still is. So don’t believe the tabloidiots who said otherwise. Another story being told is that James Madison could not maintain 100 buildings all by himself and had enslaved people do it. That story is also told. I saw the preparations for both of those stories – and many more about nature and gardens and decorative arts and lifestyles. That’s how successful sites work – they have depth. Otherwise people would see them once for an hour and never have to return.

This was the huge gift shop where I bought a $10 pen celebrating the Constitution.

The problem with “culture wars” is that they are driven by ideology. Ideologies, as I explained before (and despite their verifiable agency) are always wrong BECAUSE they are static and thus ignore history. History is dynamic, diverse, complex and contradictory. That’s why it is so fun. You can’t get it all in an hour. Or a day. Or a week. Or a lifetime.

I’ve been doing this for 39 years and i’m still learning
Ten years ago

When the mouth-breathing tabloidiots is that when they say “w*ke” or “CRT” they are making it up. These house museums and historical societies are about preserving and interpreting history, and the more the better. Their agenda is telling a deep, rich and complete story of everything that happened over time.

Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

*FUN FACT: The 1836 Battle for the Alamo is not part of the World Heritage nomination for the missions.

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Sad SAHA

November 23, 2020 Blog, Texas Comments (0) 738

If it wasn’t enough that the San Antonio Housing Authority voted to demolish the Alazan Courts project (1940) just weeks after it was included on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered List (see my blog here), they are also moving to destroy the only piece left from Victoria Courts, an administration building from the same era 80 years ago.

Now, the building was found eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places by the Texas Historical Commission, so if SAHA is using federal funds or permits, then it is an “undertaking” and would have to be reviewed by THC in its role as State Historic Preservation Office. It doesn’t mean you can prevent demolition, but it can slow it down and allow people to reconsider.

AGFA DIGITAL CAMERA

When historic housing projects first became eligible for listing back in the mid-1990s, a lot of people and media attacked the notion that these hoity-toity preservationists were interfering with the noble goal of providing decent housing for the working poor. And no one does that better than a local housing authority.

Alazan Courts (Los Courts)

Except that isn’t how it is done. The way housing authorities have worked for the last three decades is that they raze their old projects, partner with a private developer who gets tax credits for providing housing for people at 50 or 80 percent of median area income, while also providing market rate housing, thus eliminating economic ghettos and giving people a leg up.

As you may have guessed, this model is problematic, because by the time you displace a family for demolition and rebuilding, you are likely to never see them again. Moreover, the familiar pattern is like this – you slowly depopulate the project so when it is time to raze and redevelop, you have a far smaller number of people you are obligated to rehouse.

Lathrop Homes, Chicago. I worked on this one a decade ago.

Interestingly, many clever developers have become adept at combining the low-income housing tax credits with the historic preservation tax credits. They even offered to help SAHA with Alazan-Apache, so we wrote SAHA and testified at their hearing.

Crickets. Again, nobody likes the hard work.

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People And Places And People

December 6, 2017 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 2063

This year at PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on People Saving Places.  “People” is operative, because for many – notably wonky architectural historians like myself – it had often been about buildings. Even for those in the planning profession, it had been a technical question rather than a human one.  That is wrong.

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Historic Districts, Economics and Misconceptions

January 30, 2016 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts Comments (6) 1839

Everybody loves them some locktender’s houses

One of the interesting facts about the heritage conservation field is that it does not track neatly with political persuasions.  My first day of work in 1983 saw the legislation creating the first national heritage area co-sponsored by every single member of the Illinois Congressional delegation, bar none.  Imagine. Continue Reading

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Chautauqua: Where America spoke

November 12, 2015 Economics, Sustainability, Technology Comments (1) 1763

“I must protest against the dismemberment of Chautauqua.”

  • Letter to William Rainey Harper from John Heyl Vincent, 4 July 1899.

I stumbled across this nugget while researching other matters regarding George Vincent and William Rainey Harper, the first President of the University of Chicago.  Vincent’s father John Heyl Vincent was a founder of Chautauqua, which as you may know, is a place in New York state that evolved from a Sunday School into a nationwide educational movement. Continue Reading

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Farnsworth House 2015

June 21, 2015 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Sustainability, Technology Comments (1) 2829

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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Literature and Landmarks

January 17, 2015 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (1) 1750

This is the building in Harlem New York where Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man.  There have been extensive alterations, some of which were there in 1947 when he wrote the book. 

This week Ray Bradbury’s classic book Fahrenheit 451 was occupying our living room couch because my daughter was reading it as a high school assignment.  As I did, as many of us did.  It is a classic about the need for books, for culture, in the face of dystopia.  At the same time, the author’s home for over 50 years was being demolished a few hundred miles to the south, in Los Angeles, by the prize-winning architect Thom Mayne.  You can see the demolition and read about it here.    People are so upset that Mayne himself said it was “a bummer,” and you know how hard it is to crack an architect’s ego.

But the larger and more interesting question is:  How do we preserve the legacy, the memory, the significance of a literary landmark?  The issue is at the heart of many of our current debates about the National Register of Historic Places and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, both of which are geared toward architecture and are not always ideally suited to the preservation of memory, of culture, of the rich loam that nourishes books like Fahrenheit 451 and all of the students who have read it for the last half-century.  Here are a few examples I have used to illustrate literary landmarks over the years, and each of them betrays an architectural modesty, if not monstrosity.  They are significant not because of their form, but because of what happened there. Continue Reading

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Commercial and Interpretive

November 15, 2013 House Museums, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (3) 1907

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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Cultural Landscapes: The Confluence of Conservations

October 6, 2013 China Preservation, Economics, Global Heritage, Historic Districts Comments (3) 1926

we could all use some of this

I have blogged previously about the differences between natural area conservation and heritage conservation, especially in terms of use-value, as I wrote about last year in this blog. The basic point was that natural area conservation is largely about preserving non-use value – a liability (or at least an externality), while heritage conservation is about preserving use-value – an asset.

That blog also delved into the 41-year history of World Heritage, which includes both cultural, natural and “mixed” sites. I detailed how we had shifted in heritage conservation from iconic and monumental singular sites to broader cultural landscapes. In recent discussions with conservation foundations, I am sensing a new confluence of heritage conservation and natural conservation as both approaches are moving into the arena of cultural landscapes. Continue Reading

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