After You Preserve A Historic House, What Comes Next?
The argument over the Paul Rudolph house in Westport and whether it should be allowed to be destroyed has an interesting side to it that the New York Times discusses, indirectly, in a story in tomorrow’s paper: if you save historic houses, what do you do with them?
Philip Johnson donated the Glass House to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has yet to open it for tours. Historic New England owns the Gropius House, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and makes it available for very modest tours at $10 a head. Elsewhere preservation organizations are shutting down or selling houses that are much more typically “historic” because they are expensive to maintain and operate, and because they attract fewer and fewer paying visitors.
Examples: Robert E. Lee’s boyhood home, in Virginia; part of Winterthur, a duPont museum, in Delaware; and Montgomery Place, the Livingston family mansion in Annandale, New York, that is owned by Historic Hudson Valley, which the Rockefellers started:
Waddell Stillman, the president of the Hudson group, said he was “just as much a preservationist as anyone” but that he thought “any smart board would consider all the alternatives to declining attendance at a house museum,” one of which might be selling it back into private hands….
Simply put, there may be too many antique houses, with too many similarly furnished living rooms; too few docents left to show them off, and too many families taking advantage of cheaper airfares to show their children places like Versailles, where tourism is increasing. “Do you know why people aren’t going to most house museums?” asked Alan Neumann, a preservation architect from Rhinecliff, N.Y. “Because they’re boring.”
It might be more accurate to say that house museums aren’t interesting to enough people. But in a world where museums have to pay their own way, that distinction doesn’t mean much. If house museums do not have endowments, it is difficult to keep them open – or even keep them.
It’s hard not to draw the conclusion from this that the demand among museum goers is far less than the supply of historic house museums, and that the sales represent a market correction: maybe we need fewer historic house museums. Happily, when they are sold to private owners, museum houses get protected by preservation easements (an option that was available to the owner of the Paul Rudolph house, had he been aware of or interested in it). The wealthy people who buy them presumably can afford the upkeep and won’t need to sell off house lots from the land the houses come with.
I can think of just three modern houses that are (or will be) open to the public: the Glass House, in New Canaan; the Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois; and the Gropius House. The Gropius House was fascinating (to us, in particular, because it had several features that reminded us of our house), but it is an exceedingly modest historic site and it is hard to imagine it having much appeal to anyone but aficionados of modern architecture. Tours of the Gropius House run every hour on the hour, and there were two other people who took it with us – in other words, it was a $40 hour on a Sunday afternoon in November for Historic New England. At a nearby tourist attraction, whose main feature is a house site rather than a house (Walden Pond, that is), the parking lots were full. But maybe for now the demand for tours of modern houses equals the supply, and is enough to pay the bills. Our tour guide told us that of Historic New England’s 34 houses, the Gropius House is the most popular.