Resident Caretakers at historic sites
The New York Times this past week had a story about the new Resident Caretaker at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house on Walden Pond in Concord Massachusetts. The article is called “Keeping Mr. Emerson’s House.”
The young couple in the story are responsible for cleaning (dusting, vacuuming, doing minor repairs) as well as yard and lawn work in exchange for free rent. They open the house so that docents can provide tours.
This arrangement is pretty common throughout the nonprofit owned house museum community based on my research for my book New Solutions for House Museums and travels over the years. This is such a common arrangement, that I decided against including it as a case study in the book. Instead I focused the case studies on lesser known options for new users or uses for historic sites in my book.
In New Jersey, the Meadows Foundation operates five historic houses, all acquired by local government for their historic character and for their open space values over the years using New Jersey Green Acres funds. These houses were restored with many grants from the New Jersey Historic Trust a remarkable record totaling almost $2.5 Million dollars over the years. The owner, Franklin Township matched these funds dollar for dollar. The Meadows Foundation has a long-term master lease with the Township to open and operate these sites. The nonprofit organization was founded more than 30 years ago to save one house, but has gone on to manage these properties for the township.
The Meadows Foundation advertises their Resident Caretaker openings on their website, and this is what they say on their website about the Resident Caretaker responsibilities.
“If you enjoy history and are handy at dealing with the problems of living in your own residence, this might be an opportunity for you to put the “Care” in Caretaker. Each Resident Caretaker must look upon their historic site as they would their own property. These historic homes are a part our National Heritage and irreplaceable. By taking up residence in a historic house, you become a part of its history. As Resident Caretaker you would become one of the Meadows Foundation’s ambassadors to the public.”
Each of the five properties has its own flyer to advertise the Resident Caretaker opportunity when available.
For the Van Wickle House, now available in Somerset NJ, the flyer says:
“In effect, you are the “Super” of your site and must deal with any problems that may occur there. You would be an employee not a tenant. You would not be entirely on your own either, as there is a House Committee and Chairman for each house. If you are interested in living in an historic home and are particularly skilled at maintaining or repairing things, there may be opportunities to receive income to off-set the housing fee. This would entail taking on clearly defined small projects at your site. This would not be deducted from the housing fee, but paid to the Resident Caretaker. As with all historic buildings, there would be some restrictions, e.g., no flames of any kind, no smoking or pets, etc.”
Right now the Meadows Foundation is advertising for three Resident Caretakers.
- The Van Wickle House, a 1722 wood frame Dutch Colonial house, the first property the organization restored. The Van Wickle house is available for third-party rental, including weddings, receptions, holiday parties and corporate meetings.
- Tulipwood, 1892 a wood frame Dutch Colonial Revival style house. Like the Van Wickle house, it is available for third-party rental, including weddings, receptions, holiday parties and corporate meetings.
- Van Liew Suydam House, a farmhouse from 1875, restored within the last two years. The organization is currently in the process of restoring the house for community use, eventually serving as a library, fine arts gallery, and meeting space.
All of these properties were open on the second Sunday of the month, but these open hours have been suspended until further notice. We suspect that the lack of a Resident Caretaker necessitated this action.
A recent blog post by Max van Balgooy Director of Education and Interpretation at the National Trust for Historic Preservation posed an interesting question asking his audience about their thoughts about this practice. I am wondering if there will be a spate of comments about whether Resident Caretaker positions are wise, given that untrained people (like the young couple mentioned in The Times article) are responsible for general maintenance and cleaning of the National Historic Landmark and its artifacts. Resident Caretakers are not curators, registrars, conservators, the people usually charged with some of these responsibilities at a historic house museum.
While a trained specialist doing the dusting for example, might be the ideal, in practical terms, nonprofits with minimal budgets to manage these sites are better off having a live in caretaker than no one at all, if for no other reason than security. A person is far better protection for a historic site than an alarm system.
In the case of the Meadows Foundation, each Resident Caretaker pays rent which may offset the chores undertaken to maintain the property. In essence, the caretaker provides cash flow for the organization. While all of the Franklin Township properties were well restored at the outset, there still will be minor repairs needed—ask any old home owner about maintenance.
In my view it is far better to have someone who lives at the property to take care of these small maintenance items when needed. This is far better than waiting for a committee to meet, allocate scarce funds when the property is rarely open. I would prefer that these small or routine maintenance items be completed when the problem is minor, rather than have them linger or escalate into a full-fledged preservation or restoration nightmare. People living in a historic house museum can mitigate against insidious problems, such as a leaky drain.
In my travels I have seen so many historic house museums that have collections with little provenance to the site. While the collected furnishings may include quality antiques, they have been collected and assembled by others sometimes (or not) with a furnishings plan that might reflect the tastes of the key owner. For these sites, with collections not owned by the historic figure memorialized by the house, regular attention by a Resident Caretaker is far better than irregular treatment.
Resident Caretakers provide the means for many of these sites to have at least a fighting chance to be open regularly and seen by the public as is the case for the Meadow Foundation properties. They are open one Sunday a month and for special events. Without these Resident Caretakers these properties would likely not be open regularly.