Rethinking the modern house museum

How these historic sites can cope with costs, challenges, and societal changes in an Instagram era

A corkscrewing creation in the Arizona desert, the David and Gladys Wright House boasts an impressive pedigree. Built in 1952, this three-bedroom nautilus of a home, designed by architecture icon Frank Lloyd Wright for his son, is one of a handful of rounded designs that foreshadows the contours of the Guggenheim Museum.

It seemed like a shoo-in for preservation, especially after local lawyer Zach Rawling purchased the home for $2.4 million in 2012, saving it from the wrecking ball. Rawling had grand plans to create a museum and wedding venue, and despite neighborhood resistance to having a new cultural institution down the block, he seemed on the verge of success.

There were even plans announced last summer to donate the home to the School of Architecture at Taliesin, which Wright founded, turning the residence into a “living laboratory” and reconnecting it with the architect’s legacy.

That plan fell through last month. Rawling and Taliesin struggled with fundraising—Rawling needed to raise $7 million by 2020 for the agreement to work—and without financial support, the home again returned to the open market, asking $12.9 million.

“I think it’s highly emblematic of the challenges any historic house faces,” says Liz Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo, a preservation organization focused on modern architecture. “The suggestion that a nonprofit would be able to come up with $7 million dollars … it’s incredibly difficult, especially in the U.S., where nonprofits receive very little, if any government support.”

According to Waytkus, the David Wright house saga highlights many issues that make preserving historic homes—especially those of recent architectural vintage—a costly and challenging endeavor. Many of the modernist homes considered pilgrimage spots for architecture buffs, such as Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House or the Glass House by Philip Johnson, face extensive maintenance costs and the continued challenge of convincing visitors to come—or fans to come back.

“You have to continue to inspire people to visit and spend their money,” says Waytkus. “People view these places as buildings to see once in a lifetime.”

A nation of home museums

Whether preserved for architectural merit or historic importance, home museums have spread to every corner of the country—and tend to do so without much support.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates that there are more than 15,000 house museums across the country, more than the number of McDonald’s restaurants. According to the American Association for State and Local History, half of the 18,000 history museums in the U.S., many of which are also house museums, have budgets of less than $250,000 a year (half of those have budgets under $50,000).

One reason for the proliferation of historic sites is that the definition of such places continues to expand, says Katherine Malone-France, Senior Vice President of Historic Sites for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit.

“We now don’t just think of historic sites as being very iconic properties,” she says. “They can also be very vernacular buildings that have extraordinary stories associated with them. The Nina Simone home in Tryon, North Carolina, it’s one of our national treasures. It’s a house that tells the extraordinary story of a boundary-breaking, world-changing artist. It’s just a small house, but the story is extraordinary, as is the desire of those who want Simone to continue to be relevant in the world of art.”

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(Curbed, 10/12/18)