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House Museums and the Pressures of Preserving the Past

The weekend "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe featured an article by Ruth Graham titled "The Great Historic House Museum Debate," with a subtitle that asked, "Do we have too many?"

Graham touches on a lot of vexing questions about historic properties and how best to preserve and utilize them. I thought immediately of the recent dotCommonweal posts about archdiocesan bishops' residences (by Peter Steinfels) and the new Catholic cultural center in the Bowery (by Dominic Preziosi).

In the CNN "expose" that Peter linked to, a professor was quoted suggesting that archbishops who inherit historic residences "should convert the mansions to museums and move into rectories." That idea is not obviously a wise one, from a stewardship point of view -- which is, after all, the point of view a bishop is obliged to adopt when it comes to diocesan assets. There is undeniable value in preserving history on a local scale. But maintaining a museum isn't cheap.

As Graham writes in the Globe, the country (and especially New England) is dotted with "house museums,"  the former residences of noteworthy people (or, in some cases, noteworthy residences of wealthy people) now open to the public as repositories of the past. She cites Mount Vernon as a famous, and unusually successful, example of a house museum dedicated to the memory of a prominent historical figure, but you can probably think of something smaller close to you, wherever you might be. Such museums, as Graham writes, serve many purposes beyond memorializing the person or people who lived there: they are windows into past eras, and often into the domestic habits and concerns of those who lived in those eras -- people and ways of life that may be overlooked in standard great-men-and-great-deeds accounts of American history.

But they are also pricey to keep up, and in most cases the tourist traffic is light. (I am all for turning notable homes into museums, but when was the last time I visited one?) Graham explains the case for scaling back, which requires weighing sentimental attachments against practical concerns:

What’s the harm in letting a house museum limp along indefinitely, and even fail? Critics point out that this often means deferring critical maintenance that actually works against the aims of preservation, for one. But the larger issue is that if a house museum attracts only a trickle of visitors—some are open by appointment only—it isn’t serving its community as robustly as the building could in another capacity. Turning a historically significant property from a near-empty museum into a bustling community center isn’t a failure, they say, but a success.

Reading this I thought of a recent article in my own local paper, the Journal News, by Bill Cary about the financial strain that gifts of property can put on Westchester County, to the point where it has started saying "Thanks, but no thanks" to offers of estates that it cannot afford to maintain as public parks. Cary, like Graham, reported on the move toward new uses for old properties, given the challenges of preservation:

Many experts in historic preservation, as well as experienced local officials, say that the best way to maintain and save these historic parks and properties is to form public-private partnerships around the properties. These "friends of" groups raise community interest and much-needed cold cash to pay for educational programs and basic maintenance that municipalities can no longer afford....

There is just not enough foot traffic at these sites and parks to generate enough income, says [county legislator Peter] Harckham. "While these properties are incredibly important as historical artifacts, they are quite cost prohibitive."

Adaptive reuse of these historic properties is the way to go, he says. "We want to honor the intent of the gift, while finding a modern use."

As always, it's very easy to say that something valuable should be preserved and honored; it's harder when you have to find the money to make that happen. I am reminded also of the emotional struggle whenever a diocese closes a parish or a religious order sells an underused property. Identifying the greatest good in such cases is always a tough call.

Do you have a favorite "house museum" or other local-history artifact in your area? Somewhere you direct visitors, or take your kids, or donate money, or stop into now and then? Tell us about it in the comments.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Hartford, Connecticut has (at least) two house museums that appear to be thriving. The Mark Twain House provides a well-preserved look at Twain's life from 1874 to 1891, the period of time he and his family resided there and during which he wrote some of his most famous books, including Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Prince & The Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The house and its interior figured prominently in Ken Burns' documentary about Twain. And a visitor to the house with time on his or her hands need only walk immediately next door to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, where Stowe lived from 1873 until her death in 1896. Twain and Stowe were good friends. Imagine the conversations the two best-known authors in America at the time must have had.

And though it is not a house museum, I'll also throw in a plug for the Wadsworth Atheneum, a jewel of an art museum (and the oldest public art museum in the U.S.) just a few miles from the Twain/Stowe households.   

My favorite house museum is the Harry S. Truman house in Independence.

In the pre-air conditioning days of my childhood, on hot summer nights in Kansas City, my dad would  take us for drives to cool off.  The Truman home was not far, and and the Trumans still lived there.  It was thrilling to see a house where a President  -- and later, former President -- lived.  As an adult, I've been in the house, and it's  easy to feel their spirits.  Everything is still so normal, including the toaster on the kitchen table.  

I've also been in the Lincolns' house in Springfield and Washington's house at Mount Vernon.  


In the thread about Dolan's mansion in New York, (I think) someone said it could not be a museum, but I don't see why not.  People love going to the tenement museum, so why not a mansion museum?  Fifth Avenue once was lined with the robber barons' opulent mansions.  It would be easy to turn Dolan's house into a museum filled with authentic furnishings, and tourists from all over the world would pay to see what it was like to be a Vanderbilt or a Frick etc. in the good old days.  

Houses in England opened to the public by their aristocratic owners bring in buckets of cash.  The Dolan castle would do the same for the archdiocese.  

Betsy Ross House in Philly is tops on my list.  

I did get a kick out of Poe Cottage in a tiny pocket park on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. I knocked on the door years ago, a Fordham graduate student showed me both rooms for $2; (I think he lived upstairs for free,he just had to give the $2 tour when people knocked, but I might be making that part up).

And the Van Cortlandt Mansion in Van Cortlandt Park I like, too. I take the Girls Scouts there, its in my neighborhood.


And John Brown's Farmhouse outside of Lake Placid.  He's buried there along with some family and supporters. Its in a very beautiful place.

I can't speak for Mollie, but I'm wondering if the examples surfaced so far (Mark Twain's house, Abe Lincoln's house, et al) are a little too "A list" for what she had in mind.  Lincoln's house, if I'm not mistaken, is run by the National Park Service.

I don't think I've ever lived in a place that didn't have some sort of donated-to-the-town place of the sort that I think Mollie is referring to.  

Our suburb has an old house near the downtown area which now serves as the local museum and also the headquarters for the town's Historical Society.  Certainly, someone lived there at one time, and that person may even have played an eminent role in helping to kick-start this 'burb and putting it on the road to whatever it amounts to now.  I would supply the person's name and her/his list of accomplishments, but those are bits of knowledge which thus far have escaped my attention.  Once or twice, I have crossed the threshold of the ornamental fence that surrounds it, as the grounds are host to a rather wet Irish Fest each summer, but have ventured no farther yet.  In my 20+ years living here, during which I drive and cycle past it frequently, I have never seen a single visitor entering or exiting the place.  Yet I am certain there are visitors, as all of my children have been through it, although no more voluntarily than any field trip participant goes with the rest of the class / scout troop / history club.  

It is now hosting our local farmer's market, too.  So I give it credit for trying to stay relevant.


I think it is at best a close call on whether something like the cardinal's resdience at St Patrick's would make sense as a museum.  In that case it might well work.  Adjacent to the best known Catholic Church in the US, drawing pilgrims/tourists from around the globe, it strikes me that a well concieved museum could both be benficial and preserve the building.  But others, I'm less sure about.  Baltimore, for instance?  That is less likely to attract tourists though probably more historically significant as the first see in the United States. 

Those in favor of a Catholic museum might want to consider the dismal history of an earlier incarnation which for a time was located across the street from St. Patrick's Cathedral.


I'm not in favor of a "Catholic" museum, but of a "Mansion" museum.  Just as the tenement people shows how real people really lived, the mansion would show how real people really lived. 


I didn't  know there was a John Brown's Farmhouse.  I've seen his cabin in Osawatomie, Kansas.  

I've been in Mark Twain's house in Hannibal and the Eugene Fields' house in St. Louis.  Here's a link to "Jewish Lullaby" by Eugene Fields.  His version of By the Rivers of Babylon.

Jim Pauwels, From the clues you give, I suspect the house you haven't paid enough attention to belonged to the only former vice president of the United States to write the tune for a big, hit song (sung by Tommy Edwards and others).

Once he was being interrogated by a congressional committee about war spending, from his days as purchasing agent for Black Jack Pershing in WWI. When the panel got to what he paid for hoses, he exclaimed, "Helen Maria! (His favorite epithet) I'd have paid that much for mules if they could have pulled caissons."

He also won a Nobel Prize. He was still alive when I left town, so I have never been inside the house, but you certainly should take advantage of it. Unless you are talking about someplace else.



As Gov. Perry would say, Oops. The congressmen were asking about horses, not hoses.

I've been through the homes of Schiller, Beethoven, Mozart, Durer, FDR, Commodore Vanderbilt, George Wythe and Henry Flagler at least. And probably some others that don't come immediately to mind. Call me Nosy Parker. I think there is educational value in seeing what famous people saw. Has it ever occurred to you that neither George Washington nor U.S. Grant spent one day of his life without smelling horse manure? The one and only place I'd like to visit in Rome is Ignatius Loyola's room.

So there is the solution. Turn them into homeless shelters and/or apartments. I wonder if the Levite and the Priest who passed the injured man who was robbed, were on their way to a museum. I can see showing great works of art. But someone's house?  And why do they leave out the horse manure? And what is left when we can visit everything in the world digitally and instantly? Yet there is "something: about being there. I remember being with a group visiting the great churches of Quebec city which have a million steps to get to the entrance.  A person in the group said: "Let's just tell everyone we made the steps."

It is true that one of the great dilimmas of life is filling time and space. And certainly feeding the poor and homeless is not that glamorous. Unless you are homeless. Then it is not only a museum but reaches for symphonic levels. 

Mollies linking to some great spots in Westchester brought to mind the paradise of Westchester compared to the concrete jungle of NYC. If it were not for the Opera and Theater, who would need to meander South. Eventually, everyone in Manhattan will look out the window and see nothing but concrete.  I have no hesitation keeping all the greenery in Westchester. Especially with all those atrocious museums. At least the shelter and food will always be good there. 

@Jim Dunn. I've been in the cardinal's residence. Like many Madison Avenue residences of its day, it is rather small and modest. I wonder if you could get twenty-five tourists in there at a time? NB: I was not there at the invitation of the current occupent!

Anyone who winds up the executor of an estate knows the issues -- the  house built in the 1920's with beautiful leaded-glass windows, chestnut paneling and moldings, marble fireplace -- outdoor gardens with tree peonies and ornamentals -- but the street has turned over.  If you take one of these houses out of their midwestern settings and place it into Manhasset, Maplewood or Rye it would go for a fortune.  Now you can hardly give them away.

In Sacramento, the Victorian governor's mansion has become a museum and state historic park  ...

Leland Stanford's home too ...

The home of Ulysses S. Grant in Galena, IL ..... yes, friends, there are historical places WEST of the Poconos!  In fact there is an entire world west of the Mississippi.

Herbert Hoover's childhood home in West Branch, Iowa is nice to visit if you're in the area. Its very humble.  He was orphaned at 9 and left West Branch, never to come back in his lifetime, but he and Lou Hoover are both buried there, so the place must have meant a lot to him.

I really like visiting historic homes (as you can tell from my overposting on this thread).  It drives my family a little crazy on road trips when I make them detour to places like Ironville, NY to visit historic Penfield Homestead, "dedicated to preserving the history of the Ironworking Industry in the North Country in the 19th century".  Like Tom and others, I think there's value and enjoyment in learning about how the famous and not-so-famous lived.





I'm an American who has lived in western Newfoundland for many years.   We take visiting friends and relatives up the coast to St. Anthony, and one place we visit is the home of Dr. Wilfred Grenfell and his wife.   This great medical missionary came from England in the early 20th century to bring the first modern medical care to people of the outports of Newfoundland and Labrador.   He traveled by hospital ship and dogsled    He had asked himself while a medical student, "What would Jesus do if He had been a doctor?"    His and Lady Grenfell's ashes are interred in a large boulder up a hill behind the house, with a simple inscription: Life is a field of honour.   Our visitors have always enjoyed seeing the house and learnng about Dr. Grenfell.  l am so glad the house has been preserved and is open to the public.

Tom, that is some good detective work, and I definitely learned a lot from tracking down what you had in mind, but I can only say that your hypothesis would put me considerably closer to the lake  and  few income quintiles higher than is actually the case. :-)


What do we do with the left over convents?  In many parts of the US they are converted to pre-school programs if you can get the zoning done, they are also reverting to school buildings, and some are areas are rented.

In urban NJ there are rectories which at one time housed 5 or 6 priests.  Now they're all consolidated. Beautiful carved oak staircases and paneling, some with stained glass windows, exotic flooring, quarters for a cook and some servants -- these will be cherished when the neighborhoods get yuppified, but will take hundreds of thousands $ to get to modern standards.

At the corner of 105th Street and RSD in Manhattan, there is a largish "beaux art" building with the name plate, "Riverside Study Center." Last I knew it is a residence for Opus Dei. It was once a residence for the French Christian Brothers.

We once met a man who had a chance to buy it when the brothers were selling it. 70s? He said he could have had it for $200,000. But he had a family of small children and was concerned that the neighborhood and the schools would be more than they could manage. (it was a neighborhood where teenage boys jumped out from around the corner of the building and demanded your wallet!, plus drugs, car thefts, etc.). Now of course it would go for millions and probably be divided into three or four spacious condos. There is another such building at 107th and RSD, long been for sale, but no takers. These places would require millions of dollars in renovation, to say nothing of meeting historic district conditions.

These places are called white elephants for a reason.

Jim, I am flabbergasted. I was prepared to go on and name your parish. I guess I should have paid more attention to "near downtown." But at least now you know all about a used-to-be-very-famous American.

Tom - quite so, and now that song has been running through my head since yesterday.


A beautifully maintained house museum is Therese's in Lisieux.  I was the only visitor the day I was there, so I could spend as much time alone in each room as I wanted.  (The Sister was sitting in the upstairs room with the toys.)


To John Walton:  old motherhouses are a problem.  I know of one in perfect condition, in commuting distance of a big city.

But it's been sitting empty (except for a couple of nuns who look after it) for nearly 10 years.  Before they moved out, the nuns remodeled it, turning the numerous cells into a few suites.  It's nice, but so out-dated, that no one wants it.  It's going to be a tear-down, I guess.  Lots of good bricks will be harvested.  

If anyone is a Willa Cather fan, they might enjoy a visit to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where her childhood home is preserved as a museum.  There is a self-guided tour one can take around the town, where many features are mentioned in her novels, though the names are usually changed in the novels. Though there is a newer Catholic church in use today; but the original pioneer-era St. Juliana Falconieri church (I just love that name!) is preserved.  An added feature is a plot of ground a short distance outside the town which is virgin unplowed tallgrass prairie.  It is a lot different than most of the landscape in this day of fencerow-to-fencerow farming; and it is hard to imagine the landscape which the pioneers saw, as waves of tall grass.

One thing which houses of the past show us is how life has changed. The Cather house has the requisite ornate showpiece Victorian parlor, which was rarely used by the family.  The children slept in the unheated upstairs half-story, where an adult can only stand up straight in the center. Not hard to understand why there was a lot of ambivalence on the part of Cather to aspects of her childhood.


Article in NYT this morning about Johnny Cash house museum.  Not all the townsfolk are happy with the opening.

I think mostly that houses of all kinds are best when used as houses.  And I sometimes argue with my hisotric preservation friends about changes.  When people live in places they make changes.  The little cashregister storefronts which were added to the fronts of houses on some busy streets (I've been pushed to remove then in order to restore the buildings to there "original" historic design, as if the early 20th Century never happened or at least wasn't part of the building's history) and various other attempt to "modernize" or expand buildings.  After all, even Mount Vernon was largely expanded by Washington himself...modified a few times actually.  I guess I'm one who doesn't have much problem with bishops living in houses that were built centuries ago for the Bishop.  That the real estate has increased in value is a matter of luck as much as anything else. 5th Avenue is a bit of an exception I guess.  What I object to is Bishops using Diocesian funds to build or buy massive new homes in the swanky part of town.  At least in our part of the world, there are vacant rectories and schools all over the place that you could rehab and use.  If you need office space, rent office space like every other person does, or convert a rectory or a vacant school.  At least then you won't have to have slubs like me come along and try to turn them into affordable housing and listen to pastors worry about what the parishioners will think when they have to see "those kind of people" on their way to Mass on Sundays.  It isn't only the bishops who sometimes have issues with the smell of the sheep!

Jim Dunn - great comment.  I agree with your distinction between inheriting a nice residence vs building a luxurious residence with the diocese's money.  There is a third category: when a wealthy benefactor makes a gift that is tagged specifically to build, expand or rehab a comfy residence for a bishop.  Maybe that is marginally less objectionable (or maybe not; if the gift was solicited, I think that becomes pretty questionable, too).  

But Pope Francis, I think and hope, has changed the calculus for good when it comes to cushy digs for prelates and clerics of all rank.  He's raised the bar (or perhaps "lowered the ceiling" would be a more apt metaphor).

Btw, I'm not familiar with cash-register storefronts attached to old houses.  If there is a way you could provide a URL to some photographs, it might help me.  Feel free to email me privately if you think nobody else would be interested (and perhaps I shouldn't assume you're sufficiently interested to respond to the request :-)).

Poe Cottage has had a charmed life. When I first visited it, at about seven, it was safely tucked into a corner of Poe Park, which was convenientlly around the corner from my grandparents' home, and  just the place to go for a Sunday afternoon walk. . But earlier in its history it had been further east on KIngsbridge road. It was moved  to protect it., as the area became more developed.

The interior of the cottage was really a shock to me then-- tiny rooms, bare and stark. There were perhaps two  downstairs and two more in the attic. It seemed to me a sad place  where nobody could ever be warm and comfortable. Certainly it was not " homey," Over the years there were problems maintaining it, and a period in which vandalism took  its toll.. However ,these days it is being looked out for well by The Bronx Historical Society, and it has acquired a visitors center and educational programs.

That was the first "author's home" I ever visited. But over the years there have been a few others that  I really enjoyed seeing because I had by then, read the books and was able to relish the atmosphere and "connect  the dots." I think that even people who know nothing about the authors can get a sense of the way they lived, the things they chose to live with, the views they had, the books they collected. But the more you know about the authors the more fun it is.  

Two  of my favorites have been Samuel Johnson's house in London ( though we weren't allowed to visit the garret where his assistant " drudges" helped him with the dictionary), and the wonderfully preserved Bronte House at Haworth  ( where, alas,  I discovered  I was allergic to heather).  But two more American sites were also favorites, The Mark Twain House is nearby in Connecticut, but by the time I first got there, I had done research on an editor friend of his, and  was very interested in their whole circle. I hated to leave the place. But best of all, since I had lived in her book "Little Women" as a child, was Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott's home. As I walked through that house  I felt  I knew what was coming around every corner. 


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