Saving Historic Houses
Slate’s My Goodness column looks at how you can help preserve our history.
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Dear My Goodness,
I am a history buff and enjoy visiting small historic sites, but I've noticed that they often have trouble supporting and maintaining themselves. While larger monuments seem to earn enough revenue for upkeep, historic places such as preserved writers' and artists' houses are constantly at risk of going under. Is there anything I can do to seek out and aid these kinds of at-risk historical markers?
—Nora in New York
You're already helping out just by visiting those historic places—giving them your admission fees and upping their visitor numbers. Another easy way to support them is to tell your friends about the places you find most interesting. If you have a blog or other online presence, put up photos of the places you like and share your experiences.
You're right to note that many small historic sites are struggling. One crucial federal program—Save America's Treasures—has been eliminated from the president's proposed 2011 budget. The fund was already down to $25 million this fiscal year—which is measly when you consider it's meant to cover historic properties across the United States.
In order to help, you can become a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Joining gets you a subscription to the magazine Preservation, as well as discounts on admission to historical sites around the country. Your membership dues also help keep the nonprofit operational. If you want a more hands-on experience, click here to find volunteer opportunities at local historical preservation societies.
State funding is not flowing, either, especially not in New York. Here's a link to places your state is trying to keep open. I thought maybe Nebraska, with its unemployment rate of less than 5 percent, and where the governor says there's no cash flow problem, might be generously supporting Willa Cather's childhood home in Red Cloud. The Cather home gets some state money but is under constant pressure to raise more, in part because Red Cloud is fairly remote.
If remoter is better, Historic Artists' Homes and Studios will guide you to places of particular interest. For one woman's angle, there's the charming Web site Writers' Houses by Adelphi University English teacher A.N. Devers, at which you can search for homes by author or by state. For New York State, where you live, so far Devers includes only three—Edgar Allan Poe's Bronx cottage, Washington Irving's Sunnyside, and Robert Louis Stevenson's Saranac Lake cottage.
Happily, there's breaking news on the New York deceased writers front. Steepletop, the Austerlitz, N.Y., home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, just opened to the public. The gift shop sells candles that burn at both ends, a tribute to the passionate bohemian and first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry (1923).
If you wanted to give some direct aid, Peter Bergman, director of the Millay Society, says Steepletop is looking for more volunteers to sort through and catalog Millay's boxfuls of files. One unpublished poem has been found so far. Also uncovered, but by the team of volunteers in the garden, are Millay's terraced rose garden and the peonies she planted in 1928.
Tour guides, who get at least six hours of training, have to be well-informed and personable, of course. But they also have to be able to read poetry well—three poems on the house tour, five on the garden tour.
Once you've preserved the decaying home of a deceased artist or writer, you've still got to maintain the place. Edith Wharton's home, the Mount in Lenox, Mass., was pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy a few years back. Executive Director Susan Wissler explained that now they have to paint the 25-room mansion every few years and repair bricks and stonework, not to mention cover regular building expenses like heat and electricity.
Should Edith Wharton be your kind of writer, the Mount, though it has a staff of paid guides, is always looking for volunteer tour leaders. And, as at the Millay site, they're seeking help cataloging the writer's library. The Mount offers its premises for weddings, but the marriage karma there is definitely unfavorable. Edith and Teddy Wharton never got along. They lived apart, finally divorcing in 1913. She was madly in love with someone else; Teddy embezzled funds from Edith to support his mistress.
The Pollock-Krasner House in New YorkHistoric homes are not all female and literary. For a look at the home and studio of two modern artists, visit the Pollock-Krasner house. The home of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner was used in the making of the movie Pollock. You can also visit the SoHo studio of the minimalist pioneer Donald Judd, famous for his box arrangements in wood and metal. A great American 19th-century artist, Frederic Church, whom you would have to call a maximalist, built his flamboyant mansion, Olana, on a hill above the Hudson River.
Under severe budget pressure, the state proposed that Olana close for two days a week, instead of just one. The state estimated it could save $5,000 a year by closing the house on Tuesdays. But the Olana Partnership crunched the numbers and found that the typical yearly income for Tuesdays was $21,000.
Looking for an argument that the place was an asset to New York state, not just an expense, Olana Partnership President Sara Johns Griffen commissioned an economic study that found that Olana's 170,000 visitors a year, added to the employees' spending in the area, put $7.9 million into the local economy. Griffen said most of the phone calls she and her staff field are from people asking where to stay and where to eat. So when you patronize a historical house, it's not just the writer's manse or the artist's studio you're keeping in business.
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