Here's How to Support Historic House Museums Right Now

Mary Elizabeth Andriotis
Photo credit: Clifford Pickett

From House Beautiful

One of our favorite pastimes is visiting historic homes (after all, what better way to learn about historical figures than to see the spaces they called home?), but as of late, those design-filled adventures have been put on hold due to countless museum closings in order to ensure proper social distancing. To fulfill your house museum withdrawals, House Beautiful reached out to numerous landmark homes to learn how to help them from afar and what they have been up to in recent months. If you’ve ever visited—or even admired—any of these remarkable sites, now is the perfect time to support them, given that many of them are now in need of assistance more than ever before.

Photo credit: The Campbell House Museum

Fortunately, some historic homes have been able to keep their grounds open for visitors to enjoy the beautiful serenity of their landscapes (like the Boscobel House and Gardens, which has opened its grounds solely to healthcare workers, for free), but many other historic house museums do not have this option. Andrew W. Hahn, the Executive Director of the Campbell House Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, says, “We have been closed due to the pandemic since March 16. This has had a major impact on our income with losses in admissions, museum store sales and donations totaling almost $20,000. We have been able to cut some costs and we have applied for an operating grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We have asked our membership (our single biggest source of revenue) to please renew, consider increasing their membership level and consider renewing early.”

Hahn adds that “most historic house museums are very small with little or no staff (we have a staff of 2), and for people who value old homes and the stories they tell, it is imperative for them to support historic houses in their community.” The Campbell House Museum was originally built in 1851 and it is a work of early Victorian and Greek Revival architecture that features mid-Victorian era decor of the Rococo Revival style. The home is named after its former owner, businessman Robert Campbell.

Photo credit: Carl Svernlöv/Jay Heritage Center

Sites like the Jay Heritage Center in Rye, New York, are “fortunate in that it's a hybrid ⁠— both a treasured National Historic Landmark and a beautiful public park,” says Kevin Peraino, the Center's executive director. “The site was once the home of the Founding Father, jurist, peacemaker, and anti-slavery advocate John Jay, and now hosts programs about history, preservation, architecture, environmental stewardship, and social justice."

The best way to support JHC? "Get involved," Periano says. "Volunteer to help in our garden or as a docent, attend one of our lectures (virtual, for the time being), or just take a stroll in the park, where our meadow full of native pollinators slopes down toward a gorgeous vista of Long Island Sound.” In addition to these options, you can also donate to one of the house's capital projects, like the Historic Jay Gardens or the restoration of thePalmer Indoor Tennis House. If you're passionate about sustainability, consider donating to one of the JHC's public programs on climate change or sponsoring Jay Fellow in preservation or environmental studies. The Jay Mansion, which is the main building of the Jay Estate, is a Greek Revival structure that was built in 1838 by John Jay’s son, Peter Augustus Jay. This historic house “is built on the site of the Jay family’s original farmhouse, which was once the home of the Founding Father John Jay,” says Peraino.

Photo credit: Carol Highsmith

Impressively enough, restoration work has still been possible at Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York, during this unprecedented time. “Lyndhurst is actually in a unique situation in that we were in the process of restoring our historic landscape as the pandemic started," explains Howard Zar, the executive director. "Because of rules in New York State, we were actually able to continue much of our landscape restoration activity during the past months."

That means visitors will be treated to some new treasures next time they visit: "We recreated garden benches that were manufactured in the 1860s and restored extensive plantings along walkways," says Zar.

There's also room to help with future improvements. "We have three separate landscaping groups that maintain various segments of our landscape," Zar explains. "These groups usually struggle to find volunteers to work on their landscape projects, but since many people are home these days and don’t have any place to go, it would be great if they try to work with one of our landscape groups to help them maintain our grounds this summer.”

"We are seeing far more foot traffic and visitation to our property during this time when outdoor activities are seen as [being] much safer than indoor activities," Zar adds. "So, if anyone likes to garden, we welcome them supporting one of our clubs to help maintain our landscape this summer.” Lyndhurst Mansion’s most famous former owner was Jay Gould, a railroad magnate who found success during the Gilded Age.

Photo credit: Annie Schlechter/Merchant's House Museum

Historic house museums in New York City are especially struggling right now, like the Merchant’s House Museum, which was built in 1832 and boasts a late-Federal-style exterior and a Greek Revival interior. This museum is the only 19th-century home in Manhattan that remains entirely intact, inside and out, and it was also New York City’s first National Historic Landmark.

Margaret Halsey Gardiner, the executive director of the Merchant's House Museum, tells House Beautiful about the many ways in which this institution is adapting to the ever-changing times. “The Museum closed to the public on March 13, for two weeks—we thought. This is our eleventh week, with no end in sight. While we cannot estimate the full financial impact due to COVID-19, we are bracing for an extreme revenue shortfall," Gardiner says. As a result, much of the House's future programming (including the highly-successful A Christmas Carol event) is up in the air.

Gardiner adds that the museum has been keeping busy by “applying for every possible COVID-19-related grant” and working on their “ever-expanding roster of online offerings." Additionally, she says, "our virtual audience is growing exponentially. From virtual exhibitions to talks on Zoom, interactive tours on social media to recommended reading lists and coloring pages for kids, there’s something for everyone,” all of which can be found on the House's website.

Given that the Merchant’s House Museum has often been called “Manhattan’s most haunted house” by publications including The New York Times, this historic home is taking this honor in stride by setting up webcams and sensors to try to "catch" the Tredwells (the house's former residents) and their servants. They will share any findings on their website.

Financial help is greatly appreciated, says Gardiner, and “donations, large and small, to the Merchant's House will make a big difference. Or, join as a member [here]."

Donations will allow this museum “to continue to fulfill [their] mission to maintain Manhattan's first landmark and its original collections – and to educate the public about life in 19th century New York.” Ultimately, Gardiner says, “The Merchant's House Museum has survived for 188 years. We'll meet this challenge as we have every other (including our seemingly never-ending fight to defeat the proposed development of an eight-story hotel next door).”

Many other historic house museums are accepting donations and/or memberships online, including Old Westbury Gardens, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Olana State Historic Site, the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum, the Hammond-Harwood House, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, the Seward House Museum, Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, the Hammonds House Museum, the Gibson House Museum and Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House (both of which were featured in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women just last year), the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, the Lewis Latimer House, the Woodruff-Fontaine House Museum, Sands Point Preserve, the Heritage Square Museum, the Lippitt House Museum, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, the Vanderbilt Museum, the Riversdale House Museum, Planting Fields Foundation, the Molly Brown House Museum, the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, Hearst Castle, and the Heurich House Museum, in addition to the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art and Historic Hudson Valley. Find one near you to support and ensure you have a beautiful (and educational!) place to visit once you can.

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