Thursday, October 7, 2010

What Makes a Historic House Great?

This weekend I visited two historic houses up the Hudson River: Kykuit and Sunnyside.

Kykuit is the Rockefeller estate overlooking the Hudson (“kykuit” is Dutch for “high place”). The house was built in the first decade of the 20th century and expanded over the years. The space houses the family’s amazing art collection – Ming pottery, Wharhols, Calder mobiles, Sargent paintings, and more.

Sunnyside is writer Washington Irving’s “bachelor pad” – which he ended up sharing with his brother and five nieces. It’s designed as a Romantic retreat, full of winding paths and crawling ivy. The house has been restored to how it might have looked towards the end of Irving’s life, in the 1850s. Many of the family’s furnishings are in place.

Both sites are accessible only by guided tour, which of course leads to a comparison of what we do here at the Tenement Museum.

In this case, both tours were informative, but I found myself thinking of what I really love about ours. We rely heavily on storytelling, and we have a goal with our programs: to promote tolerance and historical perspective on a variety of immigrant experiences.

Many historic homes focus solely on preservation and conservation of buildings, grounds, and artifacts. These museums tend to offer object-based tours – you learn about the antiques that the family collected, how the architecture changed over time, which firm landscaped the grounds. For art history lovers, this can be really enjoyable. But for those of us who aim to experience history – how people lived, how world events impacted individuals – we often find something missing.

I think the greatest historic house tours are those that incorporate storytelling and use objects to further our understanding of history. One of my favorites is the Seward House in Auburn, NY. This is the home of William Seward, the secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln most famous for later buying Alaska for the United States (“Seward’s Folly”). He was also New York’s governor and a US senator. We on the Lower East Side remember him as the namesake for our local Seward Park, the first municipal playground in the country. His life and times are incredibly exciting – an assassination attempt, travels around the world, working with the Underground Railroad – and the tour brings all those moments alive for you.

It helps that the house is filled with things that Seward and his family used. Everything there, with the exception of some carpets and curtains, actually belonged to the Sewards. This is so rare for a house museum portraying this era (mid/late 19th century). You can stand in front of his writing desk as a guide describes Seward’s important correspondence back to Washington. You can stand in Seward’s bedroom and hear about the assassin who came up the stairs and stabbed him in that very bed.

It’s an incredibly vivid way to bring history to life and reminds me of the best of the Tenement Museum – looking at a sewing machine and imagining Harris Levine sitting there stitching all those dresses, seeing the dim light in the kitchen and imagining a child bent over a slate practicing Hebrew letters. For us imaginative types, it’s an amazing way to connect to the past.

Have you visited a historic house that you love?

- Posted by Kate


  1. Your institution is head and shoulders above other historic houses because of its emphasis on all residents. What bugs me about most historic homes is the emphasis on the "original family" and its blood members, typically the ancestors of the people who gave the house to the institution. This focus neglects the lives of the servants and enslaved people who also inhabited the premises, as well as the lives of the other people who lived there since.

    I think the Tenement Museum does a great job at broadening the frame to discuss residents of 97 Orchard at different time periods.

  2. I agree with Jonathan and would add that a visit to 97 Orchard is an experience too profound to be kept in a box with museums or historic houses. I found it resonated like a great work of art, music or theatre does - enabling me to connect with clarity not just through the years but through so many aspects of the human condition: social, political,historical,emotional,and spiritual. often can you say that about an afternoon out?! The tour leader plays such a key role in this - literally, like an actor playing themselves, and invites the stories of the people experiencing it, so that they place themselves in the 'action' as well. We look at ourselves, who we are, in the rooms with all those who have ever been there before and feel that connection keenly. It is a theatrical act but paradoxically, it uses who we really are, and as a consequence every 'performance' is unique. I am from London, the tour was comparable to the most exciting site specific theatre pieces I have seen in the uk. I went into 97 nervous of 'audience participation', and discovered that each one of us was audience, actor and at the same time, most aware of being who we really are as individuals - from specific cultures and nationalities on specific journeys, sharing that experience with each other. Huge. Unforgettable.

  3. When I first visited 97 Orchard Street, probably eight years ago, I remember thinking, “Wow – these guys are doing it right.” I was just as moved and impressed by the space and the experience as you were, including our educator’s discussion of his own upbringing in a Brooklyn tenement. It’s why I came to work here. Thanks so much for your comments. -- Kate

  4. So happy you recognized the Seward House in Auburn. We have visited there only once, but have been anxious to take more people to see it. We live in Rochester NY and it really doesn't get enough press. Next door to the Seward House is Harriet Tubman's house, which Seward deeded to her. He was an amazing man & it's a terrific historic home. We had an educator who was so full of knowledge that I could barely keep up with him. I am going to get my daughter, one of your educators, to see it soon, I hope!

  5. Speaking of historic homes in/near Rochester, another favorite that Mom (above) brought me to was Susan B. Anthony's house. It's really moving to be in the bedrooms, in the little attic office, and think of how this family of mostly women (and progressive men) worked together for a cause they really believed in. The guide showed us Susan's desk, and then a photo of her sitting at that very desk surrounded by photos of people she considered allies in the fight for women's rights. The guide told us that Susan didn't want to take sole credit for the work that many had done, so she tried to always be photographed surrounded by these pictures of her friends. When I heard that, I got choked up, and the feeling has never left me.

  6. Thanks for sharing! I've been to the women's rights museum at Seneca Falls, but I didn't know about Susan B. Anthony's house. Sounds like one I really need to get to next time I'm upstate... - Kate

  7. Great post and comments! I live in upstate NY, but I wasn't aware of the Seward House. I'll have to check it out.

  8. Emily Dickinson's home in Amherst, MA is also another great another historic house that is more about the stories and people who lived there while also discussing the things they left behind. The tour guides are all mostly Dickinson scholars and they really try to teach the reader how to experience her poetry and her life.

  9. I was head docent for a historic house museum in San Diego that's heavily marketed as haunted. Most of the guests just wanted to hear about grisly ghost stories and tragedies, but I found it so easy to turn the conversation around to how these folks really lived, and people would pull up a chair and sit for hours listening to stories about real people, completely forgetting they paid to come in and try to see a ghost.

    Love your blog!


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