On Monday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation sold Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois but don’t worry, it’ll still be preserved and open to the public. It was acquired by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, who has been operating and managing the site for nearly four decades and I suspect will be there for many more. In the 1970s, the FLWPT was a fledging organization that was attempting to save the Prairie-style home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, which had become badly deteriorated and cut up into a half dozen apartments by a private owner. It didn’t have the ability to purchase the property when it came up for sale, so they partnered with the National Trust to buy the property. The FLWPT would eventually repay the National Trust for its half of the $260,000 purchase price but in the meantime, the National Trust would hold the title and lease it to the FLWPT at a nominal price. The success of this venture prompted these two organizations to partner on the preservation of the Robie House, a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece which is owned by the University of Chicago but was badly maintained (another example of a university mistreating historic places!). With the sale of the Home and Studio, the Robie House partnership is also concluded and the FLWPT will work directly with the University.
I’m not sure what the change in relationship means, but just a few days ago, the Robie House and Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio were National Trust Historic Sites, two of 29 historic places sprinkled across the United States. It’s a ragtag collection that by itself makes no interpretive sense, doesn’t adequately represent American history or culture, isn’t connected by ownership (some NTHS are owned by others) or management (most NTHS are operated by other non-profits), and wasn’t formed to achieve a specific strategy or vision (they were mostly added as opportunities arose, donors made offers, or presidents were seduced). But with this transition, I hope it sparks some discussion around two important national issues for historic sites:
1. The need for a national organization to promote, support, and advocate for historic sites that are used for educational purposes. The greatest value National Trust Historic Sites provide is for themselves: an association of like-minded individuals and organizations to share ideas and resources in a regular manner. Twice a year the site directors convene to discuss areas of mutual concern, be inspired, and help each other. There were only a few dozen people in the room at any one time, but stepping back, I realized it was the largest and longest-running gathering of historic sites in the country. This group was small, unevenly matched, and it wasn’t of sufficient size to create much momentum, but you could see the potential. Other organizations, such as the American Association of Museums or the American Association for State and Local History, welcome historic house museums but haven’t quite developed the kinds of resources available at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, such as grants, publications, training, and expertise. Historic house museums (and their ilk, including tenements, prisons, churches, schools, farms, ghost towns, archaeological sites that are primarily used for public educational purposes) represent the largest category of museum in the United States and reach more people annually than professional football and baseball combined. Will the National Trust see this is an opportunity to build capacity within organizations to increase the impact of historic places on communities across the country, or will it see it as a distraction from their mission to, “help people protect, enhance, and enjoy the places that matter to them”? Strangely, the National Trust has a long history of ambivalence towards its own Historic Sites, sometimes running hot, sometimes cold, so I’m not sure in which direction the pendulum currently swings. It could also be an opportunity for another national organization to step into the breech.
2. The need to rethink that preservation = ownership = preservation. Property rights is one of the common battlegrounds for historic preservation, and many people (especially elected officials) are unwilling to force a property owner to save a building if he wants to demolish it. As a result, many preservation organizations have resolved the dilemma by simply purchasing the property. Sure, the property is saved but the problem is that it bolsters the argument of, “I won’t tell you what to do with your property, and you better not tell me what to do with mine, so everyone mind your own business” and avoids the tougher but longer-lasting work of building shared values around history, heritage, and culture. I hope this transition in the ownership of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio will regard it as a new model for stewardship and question the assumption that preservation organizations have to own a property indefinitely in order to see it preserved and used for good purposes. Rather than an ownership model, perhaps the National Trust and other preservation organizations could act as a “foster home” to care and nurture sites with the eventual goal that they “live on their own.” They’d always be part of the “family” and would be welcome, but otherwise they’d be making their own contributions to society. This could mean that the National Trust would purchase a significant property and as the owner, would rally and invest various resources to see it preserved; put in place an organizational foundation to help it eventually succeed on its own (including the development of a local board and identification of the next non-profit owner); and create a community of similar historic sites through a national association (see #1 above). Each site would develop over 10-20 years and as each one left the nest, another would take its place.
I suspect that the Historic Sites of the National Trust will go through many more changes in the next year or so under its new administration but I do hope that the urgency to complete these transitions doesn’t prevent them from evaluating and reflecting on bigger issues. Preservation organizations would be more strategic if saw their roles as temporary owners yet lifetime partners of historic places so they could have a broader and longer impact in the communities they serve.