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Museum Quality

By Eve M. Kahn

House museums nationwide have been losing audiences and struggling for funding during the past decade. "Are there too many house museums?" Richard Moe, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, ominously asked in a 2002 article. To thrive today, these sites need not only irresistible architecture but also engaging stories told well about inspired original builders and preservation emergencies overcome. Driven and wealthy board members also help, as do shrewdly executed master plans that expand visitor and back-of-house facilities without infringing on circulation paths.

Three of the country’s most successful house museums – Manitoga, Olana and the Florence Griswold Museum – are National Historic Landmarks designed by and for artists. Members of the National Trust’s network of Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios, these attractions draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Here’s how the staffs are freezing their buildings’ unparalleled glimpses of the past and evoking charismatic past inhabitants, while respectfully modernizing to meet contemporary tourists’ expectations.

 

Project: Studio and pergola restoration of Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center, Garrison, NY

Architects: Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, Inc., New York, NY

Restoration Specialist: Margaret Doyle, New York, NY

Contractors: Tiny Houses, Inc., Putnam Valley, NY; Wood Works, Beacon, NY; John Sanchez

 

In 1957, the industrial designer Russel Wright (1904-1976) perched a country house on a piney hillside in Garrison, NY. He tried to keep the site looking undisturbed and primeval. He had the kitchen blasted into granite bedrock, planted woodbine on the roofs and posted a cedar tree’s trunk in the living room. But the property, which he called Manitoga – Algonquin for "Place of Great Spirit" – was of course riddled with artifice.

Wright dragged around boulders to shift a streambed and form a 30-ft. waterfall facing the house’s ribbon windows. In the natural-looking bathrooms, he stacked irregular fieldstones over a tub and wedged hundreds of butterflies and fern fronds between sheets of translucent plastic on sliding doors.

Manitoga’s hard-won but effortless-seeming illusions have proven diffi-cult to maintain. Though millions of units of Wright’s curvaceous dinnerware and blond furniture sold in the 1940s and ‘50s, he never fattened his own bank accounts enough to greatly endow the house as a museum. After his death in 1976, a series of nonprofits ran Manitoga’s 75 acres, and Wright’s daughter Annie lived there and repaired little. During the past decade, entrepreneurial powerhouses and design luminaries have joined Annie Wright on Manitoga’s board. They have orchestrated capital improvements from the mossy flagstones to the gutter-deprived eaves.

Wright’s studio/guesthouse, connected to the main house by a pergola laced with Dutchman’s pipe vines, has already regained its ca.-1961 clean austerity. With drawings by Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, Inc., contractor Tiny Houses, Inc., rebuilt the pergola, which had been wire-attached to a nearby hemlock; the structure had collapsed when lightning felled the tree. The studio roof has been planted with seven varieties of sedum with white or yellow flowers. Wright’s original woodbine, explains board co-president Margaret Doyle, "had eaten right through the roofs," and Tiny Houses removed a 25-year-old asphalt replacement. In the studio’s generously windowed rooms, white Formica cabinets contrast with textured ceiling and wall treatments of white-pine needles, burlap swags or copper foil. A linen shantung window shade bears delicate oil sketches of Wright’s Japoniste motifs: fern fiddleheads and a leafless dogwood branch laden with berries.

The studio and pergola restoration cost $85,000 (paid for mainly by the Philadelphia, PA-based Richard C. von Hess Foundation). The Institute of Museum and Library Services of Washington, DC, has given a $130,000 grant to fund replacement of broken-seal, clouded-over thermopane windows in the dining and living rooms, and single-pane clerestories and doors are being upgraded with thermopanes. The federal Save America’s Treasures program has supplied another $250,000 in matching funds to secure the house envelope.

"We’re putting on a new sedum roof, digging new drainage systems and repairing anything that’s severely water damaged," Doyle explains. "Sheets of water pour down the mountainside at us every time there’s a strong rain. Water comes under the front door and down the granite stairs in a waterfall and then pools in the kitchen – guppies could live in it. The rocks inside are efflorescing and beams are rotting. But I’m an eternal optimist. Every time I pull in the driveway, I see progress and potential solutions to the next problems in line."

The house is staying open throughout the restoration. Thousands of visitors each year hike along Wright’s artfully formed cliffs to admire the house’s fragile, imaginative décor. The staff’s to-do list keeps growing; plans call for eventually moving the foundation’s offices out of a bedroom wing and restoring woolly-adelgid-attacked hemlock groves. The donor list keeps growing, too. "Once people see this place, they fall in love with it," Doyle says. "Wright himself thought it was by far his best design." 

 

Project: Cosy Cottage at Olana, Hudson, NY

Architects: Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, Inc., New York, NY

 

The iconic and widely published image of painter Frederic Church’s estate Olana, in Hudson, NY, is its turreted and polychrome 1870s mansion with 360-degree views into the Berkshires and Catskills. Church (1826-1900) continually altered and expanded the house as well as its gardens and parkland, and sketched and painted obsessively there. Each year, 100,000 people visit Olana (which he named after an ancient Persian fortress), for a vivid sense of how Church shaped and documented the American landscape. But just half a mile downhill stands a little-known, evocative and well-kept glimpse of the painter’s design patronage and lifestyle: Cosy Cottage, where he and his wife started raising a family in the 1860s and planning the hilltop mansion.

Richard Morris Hunt had developed some preliminary schemes for the main house around 1868 (Calvert Vaux later took over the plum commission). Hunt may also have designed Cosy Cottage, one of a dozen buildings in a farm complex. Whenever Church was not roaming the world painting bestselling landscapes, he played gentleman farmer at Olana, growing lima beans and corn and planting fruit trees by the thousands. The cottage, with its jerkin-head roofs, bracketed window hoods and flush siding, resembles other farmsteads that Hunt designed for plutocrats.

The Churches’ heirs maintained the building fairly well into the 1930s, but by the time the state of New York took over the property in 1966, Cosy Cottage had been stripped of ornament and bays and was clad in cement asbestos. Now the Churches’ starter home contains the offices of the Olana Partnership, a 12-person, million-dollar-budget nonprofit in Hudson, NY, that supplements the state’s staff for the 250-acre property.

Cosy Cottage has regained all its 1860s charm, thanks to a $500,000 restoration, funded largely by Olana Partnership board and council members. Based on plans by Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, Inc., the partnership rebuilt a lost wing on existing foundations, reinforced by steel beams. Artisans have also replicated the likes of cedar shingle and tin roofing, mahogany chamfered porch posts and a putty-and-barn-red color scheme.

The partnership previously maintained cramped offices in the mansion’s second floor; meetings were held in the servants’ dining room. At Cosy Cottage, the staff now enjoys spacious, Shaker-simple rooms with views across Church’s orchards and favorite mountainscapes. In 1968, the state caretakers had misguidedly gutted the cottage down to the mortised-and-tenon frame. So there is no delicate vintage wallpaper or ornate wainscoting for the office workers to avoid now. "We don’t know what the original interiors looked like," explains Kimberly J. Lamay, the Olana Partnership’s director of administration. "If we did, we’d have wanted to re-create them. Since we don’t know, that made the building flexible and became an opportunity for us."

Surviving traces of interior features were left exposed. Ghosts of partitions and closets stripe the tongue-and-groove floors. Clear acrylic sheets have been laid over brick hearths. Some adzed beams (which Church probably salvaged from a crumbling Dutch farmhouse at the site) are visible, as is a puzzling patch of brick nogging between framing timbers. "We think the nogging was put in as insulation, but no one’s sure," Lamay says.

The cottage’s office conversion has freed up the main house’s second floor for future installations of period furnishings. The mansion will be closed until summer 2007, while undergoing a $2.2-million upgrade of fire-suppression and climate-control systems. The Olana Partnership has also raised funds to adapt and expand outbuildings near the cottage into a year-round education center. Future public programs, Lamay explains, could be as diverse as studies of the local coyotes to ice-skating lessons on a pond that Church dredged. "As we restore more buildings here and keep growing," Lamay says, "we’re asking everyone in the community: ‘How can we use these spaces to help you?’" 

 

Project: Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT

Architects: Interdesign Ltd., Old Lyme, CT

Construction Manager: Kronenberger & Sons, Inc., Middletown, CT

Florence Griswold (1850-1937) was not a sensible businesswoman. As proprietor of a boardinghouse in Old Lyme, CT, from the 1890s to the 1930s, she catered to impoverished and established artists. For seven dollars a week, they received room and board, including fruit pies baked with fresh pickings from Griswold’s orchards. She could accommodate 17 painters at a time in her family’s 1817 Georgian house on a picturesque marshy riverbank. Her customers painted at portable easels outside by day and partied hard after dusk. Childe Hassam, perhaps the most famous of the 200 Tonalists and Impressionists who frequented Griswold’s, called her establishment "just the place for high thinking and low living" as well as "a little excursion into Bohemia."

Griswold let the artists decide which new boarders she should help welcome into the Lyme Art Colony. By the 1930s, she was bankrupt and the boarding house was forced into foreclosure. At least the artists had continually thanked her by upgrading the house. They painted her walls and doors with seascapes, cityscapes, farm scenes, still lifes and portraits, and in 1910 they re-carpeted, re-wallpapered and re-upholstered the shabbier public rooms.

The boardinghouse, which became a museum in 1947, now looks much as it did when the painters finished their gift of refurbishment. During a $2.5-million re-storation (funded mainly by government and foundation grants), artisans have restored the façade down to the porch latticework and woven new mechanicals invisibly into rooms full of Griswold family furniture.

"The house hadn’t suffered deferred maintenance or major structural problems," says Frederick Biebesheimer of Interdesign Ltd., the Old Lyme-based restoration architect, "but problems were emerging that would have been serious 10 years down the road."

Interdesign and Middletown, CT-based contractor Kronenberger & Sons, Inc., rebuilt the front steps in the original pyramidal configuration and re-stuccoed the foundation, which the Griswolds had scored to simulate brownstone. Beneath the 11-acre property’s restored gardens (planted with phlox, peonies and hollyhocks), 16 geothermal wells power the house’s first comprehensive climate-control system. A new fireproof mechanicals shed, gabled and clad in flush siding, occupies the footprint of a long-vanished carriage barn.

The HVAC system protects a priceless art and artifact collection, including hundreds of art colonists’ paintings and sketches along with Griswold-monogrammed china and linens. In the ground-floor bedrooms, parlor, dining room and central hall, ca.-1910 wallcoverings, upholstery fabric and rugs have been replicated. The settings, complete with paintbrushes and smocks, duplicate the artists’ own affectionate portraits of the interiors. Researchers also based choices on Lyme Colony letters, snapshots, diaries and clippings. With all the wealth of archival data, says marketing director Tammi Flynn, "this museum’s long been traveling under some lucky stars."

Using vintage photos and newspaper accounts, the staff was even able to reinstall a tiny long-lost crest that artists had applied to the dining room’s brick fireplace surround. Modern-day Lyme artist Angie Falstrom repainted the coat of arms, which is full of inside jokes: a hammer symbolizes the colonists’ harsh judgments of each other’s work, two cow heads refer to a member who liked bovine farmscapes. A Latin motto in a bottom ribbon has been loosely translated as, "Do as you damn please." No motif refers to the boardinghouse’s deferent patroness, but then she liked staying out of the limelight. Griswold was a born hostess blessed with, as one customer wrote in his memoirs, "a remarkable gift of making her guests feel it was their home and she was visiting them." 

 

 

 
 

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