Readers may be aware of the recent wave of disparagement around this notion that there are “too many house museums.” The “too many” campaign was launched about fifteen years ago by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in part to provide protective cover as they shifted more of the responsibility for their chain of house museums onto the communities where they are located; as they sold off others and also to make a point about adaptive reuse – that every old house worth saving does not need to become a museum – obviously.
It had corrosive effects and has influenced some organizations to disengage from past commitments. It has spawned a sub-culture of consultants offering themselves as a solution to sky-is- falling scenarios that they repeat at professional conferences and in various writings and lectures. To listen to most of what’s out there on the subject you’d think that Americans were turning their backs on local history at unprecedented levels and that the future of the past was grim and foreboding.
As always, it depends where you look.
I am 62 years old. I’ve spent 40 years working in and around museums – some large, some small, some rich, some poor – all fascinating to me in various ways. I began visiting house museums as a preservationist and student of architecture during college in 1974. Having been raised in Rochester – my first exposure to the world of house museums and local history was visiting properties of the Landmarks Society of Western New York – specifically their Stone-Tolan House (1790s) in the neighborhood where I lived, and their impressive Greek Revival Campbell-Whittlesey House (1836), a pioneering state-of- the-art period interior restoration from the 1930s, that they closed as a museum in 2010.
No one says this work is easy. As every homeowner knows, houses (whether new or old) cost money to maintain. With a used house, as with a used car, its always something. But its usually manageable and always full of joyful surprises.
Good house museums – and there are more than 100 extraordinary ones throughout New York State – are the best and most evocative museum environments we have, bar none. They are learning environments where content and collections, stuff and stories lay side-by- side. To a degree no other types of museums rival – they are often richly infused with local things and localisms. At a time of growing homogenization – where distinctive place markers so important to civic identity are increasingly rare – house museums can be a kind of lighthouse that calls us to a sense of place, past and community – an antidote to placelessness.
In the public imagination house museums are period restorations like George Washington’s Mount Vernon, or the restored houses at Genesee Country Village, Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island, Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island, or the properties of the Historic House Museum Trust of New York City, Inc. Despite the absurd generalizations of the critics of this genre of museums about how “too many are too much alike” with their spinning wheels, waffle irons and rope beds – the fact is, few things in contemporary life are less homogenous and alike – one to the next – than historic house museums. Not all are great. Good guides and interpretation matter. A few are – in a word – boring; but not most, not many. They often struggle financially and rarely have the resources needed to promote themselves properly – which is why the State of New York’s Path Through History initiative and the impending Erie Canal Bicentennial are so necessary and promising.
But here’s the surprise. Most house museums, or rather most historic houses that function as museums, are not period restorations. Most are owned and operated as independent, community-based historical organizations and they vary tremendously from one to the next. They are as distinctive as a thumb print and always report the news – to varying degrees – of the history and accomplishments of their localities. To call them “the community attic” – is true enough but underplays the point that they are also a kind of performance – where artfully arranged displays of carefully selected things provide a window into particular aspects of the past.
Over the years I’ve visited hundreds of house museums and historical societies – many throughout New York State – from Jamestown to North Elba, Auburn to Elmira, Catskill to Cazanovia, Newburgh to Buffalo. Its all good – sometimes brilliantly so.
Seneca Falls is famous. Site of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which includes the Elizabeth Cady Stanton House, it was famously the inspiration for the fictional Bedford Falls, the all-American downtown in Frank Capra’s seasonal classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
Like many local museums the Seneca Falls Historical Society is open Saturdays during July and August. Otherwise its open weekdays. I always seemed to be in the area at the wrong time. So recently I sought a Sunday afternoon appointment and was grateful to be granted one.
Housed in a big Victorian mansion on Cayuga Street, I was sure it would be great, but it way exceeded expectations – a perfect 10! SFHS trustee Fred Capozzi met us and for the next hour we were swimming in a thick rich stew – the stuff and stories of a fascinating place.
Seneca Falls, located between Rochester & Syracuse, is another of those western New York 19th-century boom towns steeped in history and accomplishment. Site of the famous 1848 National Women’s Rights Convention, it was also a booming industrial center and a spur on the Erie Canal. The core of the house was built in 1855, then much enlarged and modernized in the 1880s.
The historical society bought it from longtime owners in 1961, with some original family furnishings – a collection of objects and archives they’ve enhanced in many directions. The collections are truly amazing as is the house – an aesthetic movement masterpiece. Women’s history, family history, industrial history, fabulous clothes, quilts and textiles, portraits, an outstanding research library, and a handful of what I call “Rare Object Alerts” – the kind of stuff any museum, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Smithsonian, would covet. Actually they have a set of ceramic tableware that was in President Monroe’s White House, but plausibly got away when Auburn, NY resident and member of Lincoln’s cabinet – Governor William Seward got hold of it. He later later gave it to a local law colleague who later donated it to the historical society – as these things typically happen.
Without going into the 1001 particulars that are possible in such a museum – suffice it to say that you can’t get the back story on more than a sliver of the things on display in just an hour. Anything we asked about, our guide seemed to know. Research and interpretation are always part of the unfinished business of museums. And what a spectacular research library they have for that kind of work. All manner of local and regional histories, plus years of city directories, plus rare one-of- a-kind manuscripts, maps, account books from local businesses, old photographs galore – the usual stuff – except that there is nothing usual about it. Excellence like this doesn’t happen by accident and takes years to achieve.
One thing our guide mentioned but couldn’t show – something to return another time to see – is an album documenting the Civil War service of the local veteran members of the Grand Army of the Republic. He said it was remarkably specific and interesting and unusual – about which I have no doubt.
The house was enlarged and remodeled in 1880, by Rochester architect James Cutler. The Brussels-type carpet, flocked wallpaper, carved woodwork, English tiles surrounding the fireplaces, the stained glass and the aesthetic brass torchieres and gasoliers are all original to the 1880s remodeling, and extraordinary examples of that high Victorian aesthetic. The domestic stained glass is breathtaking – on every stair landing, in the double parlor and on the third floor near the children’s room – an art glass frame incorporating what appear to be portraits of the children – not unheard of but rare. As art and decorative arts its alluring. The fact that most everything has a local history and connection multiplies the value.
Photographs and photography abound and what a striking and interesting place Seneca Falls was. The falls were an early source of waterpower that turned the town into an industrial center. Many products were made there with pump manufacturing being the leading industry. The society preserves and presents many examples of early manufactured products and houses archives related to the Gould Mfg Co – pump manufacturers, still active in town 150+ years later. A special collection associated with pioneering woman photographer Grace Woodworth includes glass plates, her camera and studio props and a hand-written note from Susan B. Anthony, thanking her for her portraits of the then-famous suffragist. Objects and archives related to the servants, inventions, machine tools, the local fire company, woman suffrage, medicine, politics and more embody and preserve the cultural DNA of a fascinating town. Artifacts related to Dr. C. Anna J . Brown, the first woman to hold a county office when she was elected as County Coroner in 1934, remind us how the stories of women, too often overlooked in the “great men/great events” approach to history – are often alive and well at the level that matters most – local. She helped found the local hospital. They also own the desk where famed suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton presumably wrote the famous Declaration of Sentiments (1848). (Rare Object Alert)
Their Richard Burtless Scholarship fund provides for paid summer internships, where budding student historians, museologists, and civic leaders get hands-on experience in a fascinating and complex museum environment. There is NO BETTER WAY to learn history, to build civic attachment, and get introduced to the wonderful world of museology.
As we wrapped up, our guide – a trustee and volunteer (who schlepped in off season on a Sunday afternoon to greet us) – mentioned that “except for a single paid staff member volunteers do everything here.” And lets also understand that this is not a division of the National Park Service (outstanding though they are) with a substantial government budget. Its home-made, hand-made and lovingly nurtured by a community of individuals with a passion for place.
“Too many house museums?” Not on your life. Institutions like this may be our last best hope to rekindle the quality and quantity of civic spirit and attachment that made America great in the first place.
By the way, if anyone in New York State Tourism reads this – this outstanding museum compliments the outstanding work of the National Park Service in town.
Seneca Falls is located 15 miles from Auburn, NY – home of the (Governor William) Seward House Museum, a time capsule of breathtaking importance and authenticity. There too is the Harriet Tubman House and the outstanding Cayuga Museum of History & Art. Ten miles the other way is the outstanding Geneva Historical Society housed in the Prouty-Chew House and the drop-dead gorgeous Greek Revival masterpiece, Rose Hill Mansion. Talk about Paths Through History – all here with the added twist of these extraordinary freedom stories – women’s rights and anti-slavery with one degree of separation from Abraham Lincoln. It gives me goosebumps and is why Seneca Falls and the larger upper central Finger Lakes region it belongs to is a nationally-significant heritage destination the belongs on everyone’s to do list.
Photos, from above: Seneca Falls Historical Society; Seneca Falls Historical Society Parlour; Seneca Falls Historical Society Local Industry Pumps; Seneca Falls Historical Society Children’s Floor Stained Glass; and Seneca Falls Historical Society Stair Hall Stained Glass, Night with Bat.