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The Period of Signficance is Now

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The Period of Signficance is Now

  1. 1. The ‘Period of Significance’ is Now: Investigating the Relevance, Sustainability, and Heritage of Midwest House Museums By Emily Margosian A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts Department of New Arts Journalism The School of the Art Institute of Chicago 2016
  2. 2. 2 ABSTRACT House museums are intrinsic, yet often neglected parts of the museum landscape. Overpopulation, limited funding, and waning audience engagement are all threats to the long- term sustainability of many house museums. In an attempt to investigate potential solutions to these problems, interviews with curators at prominent midwestern house museums curators were conducted in order to identify evolving preservation trends, attitudes, and strategies. Each of the three case studies, Glessner House (Chicago, IL), the Mary Nohl Art Environment (Fox Point, WI), and the Roger Brown Study Collection (Chicago, IL), provide an introduction to the topic of midwestern house museums, while also adding their curators’ voices and insight to the larger debate within the field.
  3. 3. 3 What is a house museum? Perhaps most simply, it is defined as a private home frozen at a set point (or points) in its history for public access. For some, it is an antiquated, dusty fixture of the museum world. Lacking the polish, prestige, and institutional power of a traditional museum, a house museum can be, frankly, boring. For those captivated by the past, however, a preserved, historical home offers a unique opportunity to encounter art and history, or both, in a completely immersive context. It is this sharp split in perception that is at the crux of a larger conversation concerning these structures. Subtle changes in ideology and preservation practice have gained traction among the curators, patrons, and aficionados of historic homes, prompting the need for investigation into how the various incarnations of this largely ignored world will choose to move forward into the twenty-first century. The typical house museum is unlikely to ever hold a blockbuster exhibit or offer its audiences the diverse range of experiences found at more institutional kinds of museums. However, its defenders rightly argue that the deeply personal and immersive context offered by these spaces allows visitors the ability to forge direct relationships with not only art and objects, but also specific times, places, and people not found in any other format. Despite these merits, however, house museums across the United States are consistently plagued by frequent closures, dwindling budgets, and limited volunteers. Some have pointed fingers toward the sheer numbers of these historic sites. In 2002, Richard Moe, noted preservationist and then-president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), asked this question in his oft-cited article Are There Too Many House Museums?1 Moe asserts that the long-term sustainability of house museums was compromised by their prevalence in nearly every town and city in America, large and small. Compounding the problem, he continues, is that these 1 Richard Moe, “Are There Too Many House Museums?” Forum Journal 16, no. 30 (Spring 2002): 4-11.
  4. 4. 4 mostly volunteer-run sites are often “tired, antiquated, and disconnected from their communities.”2 Data seems to back up Moe’s assertions. In 2013, NTHP president Stephanie Meeks estimated that there were nearly 13,000 house museums in the United States, of which 65% had no full-time paid staff, and 80% of which had annual budgets that capped off at only $50,000.3 In 2015, the NTHP released updated numbers estimating that there were now more than 15,000 house museums across the country – more than the number of McDonald’s restaurants in America. While these unique, often quirky structures may leave first-time visitors with a strong impression, even stalwart house museum supporter Moe concedes that due to their sheer numbers, “the distinctions between them may begin to blur, and the frequent visitor is often left with a single overwhelming impression: There are so many of them.”4 However financial survival is only one type of sustainability that modern house museums must consider in order to stay relevant. Dynamic, innovative preservation decisions and an eye for community engagement are increasingly important factors for curators to consider. As a result, the great debates of the house museum field are now equally concerned with the reinvention of preservation practices as they are with the bottom dollar. Geographically, the Midwest presents abundant opportunity and a unique lens with which to investigate this specific type of museum. Small towns often make heroes of their local figures, and the sheer size of the region in comparison to the rest of the country provides ample ground for every minor (and major) political, military, and civic leader to have their home preserved by 2 Ibid., 4. 3 Donna Harris, New Solutions for Historic House Museums: Ensuring the Long-Term Preservation of America’s Historic Houses (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007), 8. 4 Richard Moe, “Are There Too Many House Museums?” Forum Journal 27, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 55-61.
  5. 5. 5 professional historians or hometown amateurs. While these types of house museums are undeniably the most common, the homes of creative persons are frequently the most enchanting. Artists are often perceived by the rest of society to be eccentrics with unconventional perspectives – qualities their homes often reflect. Often overlooked in a wider art-world context, artist homes and lived-in environments in the Midwest reflect a certain offbeat aesthetic, perhaps less glamorous than their coastal counterparts, but with their own distinctive edge. Determining the exact number of house museums, however, is nearly impossible. Due to the wide spectrum of development and professionalism across these museums, they can range from “large, well-known cultural icons…to small, mom-and-pop operations that are open only sporadically and are not affiliated with any professional organization.”5 The 2008 economic recession played a significant part in the failure of a number of house museums throughout the Midwest and the greater United States, both the “mom-and-pop” variety and those with institutional backing. This external force served as a catalyst for surviving sites to evaluate the model in terms of its durability with contemporary audiences. In the early days of the museum, the house museum model was the standard. It was common practice to restore a few rooms of a home with some level of historical or aesthetic notoriety, and open the space for tours. Within the present-day community of house-museum caretakers and curators, a growing concern is that this traditional model is no longer sustainable in terms of repeat visits or profitability, both necessary components of historic site management. One promising solution has been the forming of a consortium of house-museum curators located in and around the Chicago area. Four years ago, curator Bill Tyre of Glessner House 5 Ibid., 59.
  6. 6. 6 museum noticed a distinct lack of communication between the various house museums in the city: "Looking at the city in a broader spectrum, one of the things that I realized is all the house museums in Chicago need to find ways to work together, because we're stronger as a united body,” he says when interviewed. In response to this lack of solidarity, Tyre started a consortium of a little over twenty house museums in Chicago, called At Home in Chicago. The group meets quarterly, and launched a website in the fall of 2014 through a donation of outside funding. Since establishing At Home in Chicago, Tyre finds it hard to fathom how fellow Chicago house- museum curators operated without formal communication and collaboration for so many years. "It's one of the ways I've remained in touch with Lisa Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection, because she is one of the people that is very involved,” says Tyre. “It's important, forming more of a sense of community, rather than us all being these independent little sites." Tyre hopes that other cities and regional areas will consider trying a similar model to better unite institutions within the field. In the process of investigating how house museums of the Midwest were responding to the challenges facing their field for this thesis, I conducted academic research and firsthand interviews with curators, as well as made repeated site visits. Out of the innumerable locations to choose from, three were selected for the different facets they each reveal: the Glessner House, the Mary Nohl Art Environment, and the Roger Brown Study Collection. Ranging from the traditional to the experimental, from the stable to the endangered, each of the three case studies selected adds an important voice to the conversation regarding the future status and evolution of the house-museum model. Glessner House, located in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, offers a fairly straightforward narrative of a traditional house museum trying to find its place in the twenty-first
  7. 7. 7 century. Originally owned by John and Frances Glessner, prominent Chicagoans during the city’s Golden Age, the home’s curators seek to channel its charms to a modern audience. By turn, the Mary Nohl Art Environment offers a very different look at how an art environment with enormous potential for museum status can be stifled without the right institutional support structures and community support in favor of conservation. Located in Fox Point, Wisconsin, this visionary home and its surrounding yard were originally owned by artist Mary Nohl, whose status as an outsider in her community has extended into the present, setting the stage for many ongoing battles over the future status and survival of her home. Finally, the Roger Brown Study Collection, the home and studio of Chicago artist Roger Brown offers an unusual example of access-centric preservation strategy. Backed institutionally by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, this site offers exciting possibilities for the future of the midwestern house museum. Presented as case studies, these examples will address how each house museum approaches the issues of funding, attendance, preservation ideology, and cultural relevancy. Beyond these challenges, however, all three locations reveal their individual charms and contributions to history, the very aspects that make house museums such an invaluable part of the historical narrative. For the many who love house museums, this model offers an intimate and often more authentic lens with which to view history. “It’s important to understand that history is complicated and embodied in the individual. There’s nothing more interesting than to think about how people lived,” says Karen Patterson, curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. “House museums are so fascinating because of how people act in their private life is so much more true to who they are than in public.” In an era of dwindling privacy and increasingly calculated public and digital personas, the humble, but not yet antiquated house museum may
  8. 8. 8 offer an alternative lens with which to view the ongoing debate on where the line between public and private life should be drawn. Despite their uncertain future, house museums will always hold a specific appeal for the right type of audience. As Moe observes, “Stepping across the threshold of a house museum has brought history alive for millions of people.”6 Without the long-term survival of these sites, that fundamental experience is lost. 6 Ibid., 61.
  9. 9. 9 GLESSNER HOUSE Lambasted by Ruth Graham of the Boston Globe in 2014 as "the sleepiest corner of the museum world: they [house museums] tend to be small spaces with small budgets, elderly volunteers, and even older furnishings." Graham notes that despite their alleged dowdiness, house museums have recently "become the center of a live, even contentious debate."7 A debate the curators of Glessner House are determined to engage. "I think it's fluid; I think it's flexible,” says Glessner Assistant Curator Becky LaBarre in an interview. “You have to structure your house museum to best serve your identified target audience, while respecting the history of the structure and also making it sustainable and interesting to upcoming generations." Executive Director and Curator Bill Tyre shrewdly adds, "If you don't have an audience, it doesn't matter how great of a job you're doing." Aesthetically both medieval and modern, the foundations of Chicago's Glessner House are deeply rooted in the city's twisting narrative of architectural history. The home was designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson for John and Frances Glessner, prominent Chicagoans who lived during the city’s Gilded Age (approximately 1870 to 1900). Embodying the "revolutionary expression of the urban townhouse mansion,"8 the monumental Glessner House draws spectators from around the world and nearly 10,000 visitors per year who come to see the last structure designed by Richardson still standing in Chicago. 7 Ruth Graham, “The Great Historic House Museum Debate.” The Boston Globe, August 10, 2014, accessed March 19, 2015, debate/jzFwE9tvJdHDCXehIWqK4O/story.html. 8 “The House,” Glessner House Museum, accessed March 19, 2015,
  10. 10. 10 Appealing to those whom Tyre refers to as "the architectural die-hards," Glessner House is more than just its looks. One of the first historic preservation success stories in Chicago, the home’s metamorphosis into a cultural institution makes it an important marker in a larger dialogue on the enduring relevance and viability of the midwestern house museum. Completed in 1887, "Glessner House demonstrates the nearly perfect collaboration between the architect and his clients," says Tyre. Both the Glessners and Richardson were considered progressives of the day, “so when they came together it was this perfect relationship, and resulted in a building that was very different from what was being typically built at the time.” John and Frances Glessner lived in the home almost fifty years until their deaths in the 1930s, and the couple is remembered for their participation in a variety of Chicago cultural institutions. John Glessner was actively involved with civic affairs, including several aid societies, Rush Medical College, and the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). He is buried at Chicago's historic Graceland Cemetery, and is credited with influencing the development of Chicago's Gilded Age. His wife, Frances Glessner, is noted for her organization of women's lectures at the home, as well as for her skills as a silversmith, beekeeper, seamstress, pianist, knitter, and needle worker. Like her husband, she was also a patron of the fine arts and was involved with the AIC, the Decorative Arts Society, and the Chamber Music Society. Both Glessners are credited with founding the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For LaBarre, the dynamic social history of the home and its owners is what extends Glessner House's significance beyond the strictly architectural. “I’m more of a social historian," says LaBarre, "I have an architectural background, so I can rattle off features, but the Glessner family is what clinches it for me."
  11. 11. 11 Key inspiration for the home’s design was drawn from a treasured family photograph of Abingdon Abbey in Oxfordshire, England. From the time of its initial construction in 1886, Glessner House has continued to be appreciated by architects and designers for both its historical significance and aesthetic appeal. "Glessner House is in just about any book on American Architecture," notes Tyre. Designed by Richardson in 1885 for the Glessners, it is the last of his work still left in Chicago, earning it the moniker "Richardson's famous house." Based out of Boston, Richardson was an established architect at the time of the home's construction. Now historically considered part of a “trinity” of major American architects, alongside Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, Richardson is primarily recognized for his self-titled “Richardsonian Romanesque,” a revival style that references medieval architectural elements such as curved archways. Built during a tremendous period of growth for Chicago, the home's birth and continued life span is deeply rooted within the city’s history. The present-day museum houses a rich collection of decorative objects produced during the Arts and Crafts Movement including furniture, musical instruments, and a collection of about 3,000 books belonging to John Glessner. In addition to these, the interior of the home is filled with a large archive of original furnishings donated by the Glessner family's descendants. Tyre estimates that between ninety to ninety-five percent of what occupies the house is original. Items not original to the home were added out of necessity (for example, the dining room table did not make it back to the museum), and were chosen based on their comparability to the missing original. Not every area in the home has been recreated, but the primary rooms have been restored for public viewing. "Richardson shattered the designs typical for the period and created an example of one goal of the Arts and Crafts movement: a completely integrated environment...the
  12. 12. 12 interior reflects the simple designs of the American Arts and Crafts Movement," describes Tyre. “Those decorative arts are very important, almost as much as the architecture. Many of those pieces were made specifically for the Glessners by leading designers of the day.” Major restorations to the Glessner House in recent years have included the recreation of the parlor through the utilization of a variety of modern techniques, such as the replication of William Morris drapes via digital scanning and printing methods. Upon his death in 1936, John Glessner gifted the house to the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects intact with all of its original contents. However, the financial pressures of the Great Depression forced the organization to return the home to the family over doubts about maintenance during a time of tremendous national economic pressure. The house then entered a period in which it was passed through a series of owners. After its return to the Glessner family in 1937, it was given to the Armour Institute, later known as the Illinois Institute of Technology. After World War II, the home was passed onto the Lithographic Technical Foundation. When the company moved to the East Coast in the mid-1960s, the home was ultimately threatened with demolition. In response, a small group of local architects formed the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation (later known simply as the Chicago Architecture Foundation) in 1966, saving the home. "The history of Glessner in the preservation movement is really powerful to me," says LaBarre, "The fact that the Chicago Architecture Foundation was formed to save this house -- one of the first landmarks in the city -- shows that the deep history in the preservation movement in Chicago is all centered around this building." Shortly after its rescue, many preservation-based organizations in Chicago and the state of Illinois housed their headquarters in Glessner House. Landmarks Illinois, a state-centric
  13. 13. 13 preservation agency, began its work within the walls of the Glessner family home. In a particular twist of irony, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the original organization to receive stewardship of the home, eventually returned to the site for temporary operation as well. In 1970 the house was placed on the National Registers of Historic Places and officially named a Chicago landmark before achieving National Historic Landmark status in 1976. “The architectural aspect, the design, the history, the preservation efforts of this building, the collection, and the social history that’s within these walls is just an incredible resource,” says LaBarre. However, despite Glessner House's historic rescue from demolition, the site now faces a subtler, multifaceted challenge: the push to remain fiscally stable and socially engaged without isolating itself from its historical and personal legacies. “I think in the last several years there’s been a lot of tension drawn towards house museums and how they can remain relevant in the twenty-first century,” says Tyre. In 2014, Glessner House, has an annual operating budget of $350,000, roughly a third of which comes from the city, and an endowment of $20,000. However, by early 2016 Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) “abruptly ended its relationship”9 with the museum, forcing its curators to look towards alternative funding streams. “Fiscal stability is always a concern since our endowment is small,” says Tyre, “We would like to move away from doing so many rentals due to the demands it puts on staff, and the wear and tear it puts on the building, but until we have a better revenue stream, we continue to promote them actively.” Like many similar spaces, Glessner House relies heavily on the work of interns and students from nearby schools, including the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 9 AJ LaTrace, “Concerns Raised Over City’s Management of Its Oldest House,” Curbed Chicago, January 7, 2016, accessed February 4, 2016,
  14. 14. 14 “During the years I’ve been here, I’ve had to really think about what else the museum can do to be considered a valuable resource both in the community and the city,” says Tyre. In recent years the museum has expanded programming beyond its original architectural themes. Lectures, symposia, workshops, and rentals for special events are now offered. According to Tyre, this helps distance Glessner House from the type of museum that can be visited once and then “crossed off” a list, and brings it nearer to larger museums such as the AIC, which feature rotational programming and exhibits. “We’ve been trying to give a lot of thought to what types of things would bring people back multiple times, and then provide ongoing support for the museum.” This concept of local engagement and repeat visitation is a continuing struggle for the curators at Glessner House. Historically, a weak relationship has existed between the museum and its immediate neighborhood. In the past, no residential neighborhood existed around the site; the present homes and apartments are a relatively recent addition to the shifting cityscape. Tyre suggests the newer residents don’t feel a strong connection to the historical site, despite its existence “right in their backyard.” “It’s easier to get someone from Europe to visit because they read about us in an architecture book, but to get someone from down the street is much tougher,” he laments. Attempts to remedy this disconnect have been made through collaboration with a local civic organization, the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, by primarily offering the home as a venue for events. Despite the reality that financial sustainability is tantamount to survival, there has been pushback towards the incorporation of “extra” programming from traditionalists in the field, who maintain that the core mission of a house museum should be to provide a basic tour. Today, the Glessner Museum offers children’s programming, craft programs, and overnight campouts. Tyre
  15. 15. 15 defends these outreach efforts by suggesting that they “hopefully bring more people into the museum to learn about what we do," and that "the idea now is that the traditional tour program is one piece in a much bigger agenda for what we need to be in order to sustain ourselves.” There are, however, some limitations as to how expansive these new innovations can be. All programming must be relatable in some way to the history of the house. However, the varied history of the Glessners allows for a wide scope, something Tyre admits has produced relatively “loose guidelines.” For example, since the Glessners were two of the founders of the Chicago Symphony, musical programming, for example, is allowed. Craft-related activities are linked to the Arts and Crafts movement, and the more traditional architecture-based programs that draw substantial international visitors benefit from the home’s rich architectural history. “We try to make it as broad as possible,” says Tyre, “But we do want people to feel that there is some specific relevance to that program being held here.” Tyre and LaBarre have also made a push to expand beyond the strictly physical offerings of the site into the realm of the digital. They have increased Glessner House's social media presence, and launched a new, if admittedly rudimentary, website to accommodate for demand for new ways to experience historic sites. Like much of the home’s general maintenance and programming, much of this new digital heavy lifting is done through the work of volunteers. Restoration decisions are made by Tyre, as well as by a collections committee. Then it comes down to “finding the perfect craftsmen and tradesmen that can do the work that needs to be done.” Restoration of the Glessner House parlor took roughly two-and-a-half years to complete, a typical timeframe for the work done to the room. The pressing question of fundraising for this construction project, increasingly ever present in the house-museum conversation, seemed to indicate that funding was more challenging to procure, than perfect craftsmanship.
  16. 16. 16 "If you go through the rooms you see we have the ropes set up,” says Tyre, "For example, this fall we're doing a piano recital in the parlor, we'll move out some of the furniture and set up chairs, so people will actually get to spend the afternoon sitting in the parlor just like the Glessner's guests would have. Those events are very popular because people feel like they're able to do much more than just stand behind the rope. At one time we probably wouldn't have even considered doing those types of things." LaBarre sees these more interactive preservation choices as a step in the right direction. "That seems to be where the modern visitor is camping," she says, "that experience, that interaction, having some sort of tactile or emotional connection to the historic site. The model of the basic tour, where you're talked at and given facts is passé now. There has to be something more.” While change in the house museum world may be slow, both curators agree that new strategies are key to a healthy engagement with the public. "I think we would never eliminate the traditional tour because that's just a basic part of what a lot of people want, but we can't just rely on that being the only way that people experience the house," says Tyre. With forays into contemporary tailoring of programming, digital outreach, and partnerships with other regional house museums, Glessner House is one example of a house museum adapting to ensure that its unique architectural status, collection of artifacts, and dynamic social history is preserved and accessible for years to come.
  17. 17. 17 MARY NOHL ART ENVIRONMENT “[Mary] Nohl never believed that art existed in a separate sphere, corralled into museums, labeled with text, or swept into the marketplace of privilege.”10 Prominent “outsider” artist Mary Nohl (1914-2001) had many things in common with her striking home. Both the woman and the structure she spent most of her life in were secluded, deeply rooted in their surroundings, and misunderstood. An alumna of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Nohl moved to Fox Point, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, after graduating from the school in 1937. Other than a temporary stint running a pottery production studio, the majority of Nohl’s work was created in and around her childhood home on Lake Michigan. The concrete sculptures that line and fill the yard surrounding Nohl’s home are endearingly whimsical at first glance. Rounded, smiling faces stare back at potential visitors that must observe them from behind a chain-link fence separating the property from the rest of the neighborhood. However, despite the cheerful disposition of the many faces that inhabit Nohl’s yard, there is a slight sense of menace that comes from being watched by so many faces. Nohl formed the features on her sculptures primarily through indentations; hollowed-out grooves form eye sockets, a seeming swipe of a finger creates a carved-out smile. Long, oblong concrete creatures recall the mystique of Easter Island heads, while smaller, rounded figures with 10 Debra Brehmer, “A Single Woman Is a Witch: Battling to Save the Art Environment of Mary Nohl,” Hyperallergic, December 12, 2014, accessed July 23, 2015, witch-battling-to-save-the-art-environment-of-mary-nohl/.
  18. 18. 18 mischievous faces reinforce an undeniably playful, yet slightly unnerving aesthetic to Nohl’s home. The adornments applied directly to the house feel lighter, with a clear sense of nautical- inspired whimsy. Fish, swimmers, and boaters are all carved into the woodwork, lining windows and spanning panels of siding with flanks of many fins. While many of Nohl’s sculptures feature fish and maritime motifs, the reclusive artist drew more than just inspiration from the adjacent lake; many of her sculptures and the adornments to her home were constructed from salvaged materials found along the beach. “Access to the lake is just intrinsic to what she made,” explains Karen Patterson, curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC), the current steward of the home. “She would use the beach as a source of raw materials. A lot of her sculptures have concrete mixed with sand from Lake Michigan or driftwood from the beach. I think her work is a direct conversation with the lake, both conceptually with her design and in a more physical way.” The complete personalization of the space extends to the interior of the home as well. Woodwork on the stairs and the mantle also feature fish motifs, and the ceilings, walls, and even furniture have been carefully stippled with paint. The home also contains some of Nohl’s more traditional work, a series of paintings comprised of swirled, abstract designs. Despite her formal training at the SAIC and a brief stint as an art instructor, much of Nohl’s work and inspiration existed outside the mainstream art world. The revolutionary, interdisciplinary nature of her work, and the visionary quality of her environment established Nohl as an artist operating from outside the more formal aspects of the art world – something that likely pleased the reclusive artist. Even within the selective niche of artists who choose to create cohesive environments of their work, Nohl is significant as being one of the few females.
  19. 19. 19 The majority of Nohl’s adult life was dedicated towards working to transform the interior and exterior of her house and surrounding yard to match a unique artistic vision all drawn from and inspired by a specific geographic location. Unmarried and unattached, following the death of her father, mother, and brother, her complete inheritance of the home and her family’s substantial wealth gave Nohl the comfort and freedom to continue to work over the course of her life. In addition to her one-time pottery studio, Nohl also worked temporarily as an art teacher. However her most productive years as an artist began in the late 1960s and continued into the early 1990s. Beyond the complete adornment of her yard, exterior, and interior of her home, Nohl also produced a number of paintings and silver-worked jewelry. Prior to passing away in 2001, at the age of 87, most of Nohl’s final years were spent working indoors due to the persistent acts of vandalism that plagued her home as a result of the widening aesthetic and ideological gulf between the increasingly private artist and her affluent neighbors. After her father died and her mother entered a nursing home, Nohl assumed control of the house and began work on the structure in 1960s, beginning first with only minor alterations. “She was very conscious of not upsetting her mother with the radical changes that she was going to make to the house,” explains Patterson, “She waited until her mother passed away before she really went to work on the house.” Most photos of Nohl depict a petite gray-haired woman with a slight smile, almost always posing with her work. Though not sinister in appearance, her home became infamously known as the “Witch’s House” during her lifetime, and the name has persisted even after her death. While Nohl was not known for being particularly sociable, there is no evidence of any personality-driven conflicts with her neighbors or the greater Milwaukee community. Much of the animosity, fear, and ridicule projected onto to Nohl and her home stemmed from the
  20. 20. 20 structure’s defiance to fit into the affluent mold set by Fox Point. Mary’s unmarried status, curious looking home, and solitary ways inevitably fueled the classic narrative that any unusual woman existing just outside society must be a witch. “A woman is a witch when she bends her role, when caring and tending coexist with inventing and building, when she claims and wields power that has not been granted by a curator, a professional figure, or any other infrastructure,”11 says Debra Brehmer, a local Milwaukee artist. Teenagers coming to the property to gawk or stir up trouble fueled rumors of bodies buried in the concrete sculptures; other sinister rumors were concocted about a woman that few in her native community ever really understood. “Mary’s house has a legacy of people vandalizing it and coming to look at what they call the ‘Witch’s House,’” admits Patterson, who is openly uncomfortable with the prospect of the house becoming accessible to an unreceptive public. “I’m not saying that I think we should be controlling the behavior of people going through museums or house museums by any means,” she says, “But I do think the assumption is that the people who came and threw stones at the house and Mary herself, or lit things on fire, are the same people that will come visit this as a house museum.” Despite its recognition as a valuable artistic and cultural asset by even the most stubborn opponents, the uncertain future of the Mary Nohl Art Environment offers a fascinating look at the polarizing effect the introduction of “the other” can have upon a community. Much of the tension between Nohl and her neighbors began as she started making noticeable changes to the home and yard in the 1960s. A period of significant social and economic change in the region positioned Nohl in direct conflict with the larger community’s vision for the area. “Most of the property along this private enclave of beach had been subdivided into acre lots, expensive suburban homes replacing the original quaint cottages of 11 Ibid.
  21. 21. 21 Nohl’s generation,”12 explains Brehmer. Nohl’s home represented an obvious divergence from the homogenization and gentrification of the neighborhood, perhaps even interpreted by her neighbors as a defiant rejection of their own affluent American dreams. Brehmer continues: “Most of her neighbors mowed their giant lawns every Sunday in a shared ritual of conformity, a nod to man’s mastery of nature. In contrast, Nohl wove the sky, lake, beach, wind, and her childhood memories of unfettered play into a self-styled art environment.”13 Today, those very neighbors have ensured that Nohl’s home is only currently visible to the public from behind locked gates. Despite the passage of time and lack of a clear preservation strategy, Nohl’s home remains undeniably striking. While her property was, and still is, considered to be an anomaly in the relatively affluent Fox Point, the concept of art environments is deeply entrenched in the mentality of the Midwest. Although house museums and art environments differ structurally, they share commonalities in terms of the unique ways they reflect the mentalities and lifestyle of their owners and creators. As the Midwest is predisposed to producing and harboring a large number of house museums, the midwestern work ethic has also fostered a significant number of surviving art environments. “There are tons of grottos and artists who have, in some way or another, altered their home, their church, or their surroundings as a way to pay tribute to something. That’s a very midwestern idea,” says Patterson. “There are a lot of hardworking people in the Midwest too, so a lot of these environments were built by retired lumberjacks, or people who have worked their whole lives and retired, but were so used to physical work that they continued to make and build.” However, as any cursory survey of these sites will reveal, Nohl’s environment is distinguished as one of the only examples 12 Ibid. 13 Ibid.
  22. 22. 22 constructed by a woman, with or without artistic training. According to Brehmer, “There’s not an academic in the world who knows anything about art environments who doesn’t know about Mary’s site.”14 Despite the solitude of her day-to-day life, Nohl is noted for her strong work ethic and compulsion to create nearly every day. “We have her journals here at the art center, and she would write in it daily,” says Patterson. “She would set up tasks for herself, and whether it be the concrete or driftwood sculptures, the cutouts, the paintings, ceramics, jewelry, puppets, or her own furniture, she was doing something every day and that’s where she got the biggest joy.” Based on the content of her journals, and the distinctive transformation of her home, it’s possible her eclectic and expansive artistic output was also influenced by her time at the SAIC. “She had a similar education track to artists like Roger Brown, Ray Yoshida, and the Imagists. They were encouraged to look at everything in art history. That holistic approach is very midwestern as well,” says Patterson. Like Nohl, these contemporaries produced art deeply linked to a sense of place. Brown in particular shows some key similarities to Nohl both in his artistic output and the unique fashioning of his own home, to be discussed later. While Nohl’s unique vision and independence literally rebuilt the home, it also condemned it to an uncertain future and ensnared it in an ongoing battle with the surrounding neighborhood. Nohl’s Fox Point neighbors, with whom she had always maintained a shaky co- existence, were troubled by the possibility of increased traffic to the secluded residential area, as well as the perceived type of people an art museum would bring to their community. Even while Nohl was still alive, the road to the present was rocky. Known to have frequently changed her 14 Matthew Reddin, “A House Divided,” Milwaukee Magazine, July 7, 2014, accessed November 23, 2015,
  23. 23. 23 mind as to whether or not her home should be preserved, it was only through negotiation and persuasion on behalf of arts administrators that Nohl eventually decided to donate her home to the Kohler Foundation, a philanthropic organization well known for its work with the preservation of art environments. Despite the similar names, the Kohler Foundation and current stewards, the John Michael Kohler Art Center, are unaffiliated entities. “It took a lot of convincing for her to understand that this house has value; that it’s an interesting and important way to talk about history, art, life, and home,” states Patterson. Although Nohl was initially only concerned with preserving individual pieces of her art rather than the entire structure of her home, near the end of her life Nohl did sign a contract with the Kohler Foundation allowing them control over the property following her death. In addition to the gift of her home, she left a separate endowment of $11 million to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation as a final contribution to the arts community. Although well known for its work in preservation, the Kohler Foundation immediately hit snags upon its acquisition of the property. “Typically, the Foundation’s model is to work on a site, make sure it’s stabilized, preserve it, and conserve any objects that need to be worked on. Then they find a site steward and gift it to them,” notes Patterson. “That’s the model they’ve been operating on for over 40 years.” The Foundation is in possession of a significant collection of work by twentieth-century self-taught artists, and has preserved other notable art environments in situ, such as S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, and Ernest Hupden’s Painted Forest in Valton, Wisconsin. That formula was disrupted when Kohler began looking for a site steward to assume maintenance of the house and grounds. In 2005, only four years after Kohler Foundation’s acquisition of the home, the Wisconsin Preservation Trust had already identified it as one of the
  24. 24. 24 ten Wisconsin historic sites in greatest jeopardy. During this period, Kohler was simultaneously making attempts to reach out to local Milwaukee organizations with offers of permanent stewardship, administering routine repairs to the site, and fielding confrontations from a community who wanted the home to remain the private residence it had always been. “At some point they had someone living in the house who was actually a judge,” says Patterson. “There was so much resistance to turning Mary’s house into anything. No one wanted to see it survive. The foundation would work on the house, and get citations from the community board. I don’t know what the policing outfit was, but they would get fined any time they tried to do work.” While disheartening, these bureaucratic attacks paled in comparison to the more pointedly hostile interactions Nohl had with her neighbors while she was still alive. The many rumors surrounding Nohl and her property have persisted, earning at least a passing mention in nearly every article published about the home in local and national publications. The entrenchment of the property’s grim reputation in local lore is noted in Milwaukee Magazine: For decades, Mary Nohl’s home has been a secret source of fascination for Milwaukee, a place where late-‘60s hippies would gravitate to get high amid the statues, half-drunk teens would venture to test their nerves on moonlit evenings, and devotees aware of her work would pilgrimage to pay their respects. But with the artist herself so often unseen, it’s unsurprising a lore as unorthodox and enigmatic as her work would spring up around her life. Rumor would have her a grieving widow trying to recreate her drowned husband and child out of stone, or a murderess with those same corpses interred beneath her sculptures.15 Less fantastical fears from neighbors include potential increase in traffic, parking limitations, and loss of privacy in the event the property became a legitimate house museum. Though the area has always been relatively affluent, Patterson suggests that the exclusivity of the area has only increased over the years: “That area of Fox Point is like a gated community. 15 Ibid.
  25. 25. 25 Mary’s house is at the end of the road on a corner, so they’re worried about who the house will attract.” In 2005, at a meeting with the village’s Historic Preservation Committee, allegedly more than 100 residents showed up wearing buttons proclaiming “No Museum.” (Ironically, this is the same year that the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places). After years of standstill, in 2012, the JMKAC became the site steward for Nohl’s house, assuming ownership and curatorial control of the property from the Kohler Foundation. During its state of limbo, the home had begun to deteriorate, and attempts to tap into the neighborhood’s goodwill had remained unsuccessful. In spite of the “international presence, national presence, or even the Milwaukee-proper presence,” of the Nohl home, says Patterson, “what we needed was support from the surrounding community – specifically east of the highway.” In attempts to woo this specific niche of the population, JMKAC has tried to enlist community champions, hosted informational dinners, and held workshops to educate the public on the kind of work the art center does, with limited success. As the tide of public opinion had yet and continues to turn, the physical condition of the home continued to decay without a set plan for its future. In light of further impending damage, the possibility of moving the house and its contents from the yard began to be considered as a serious possibility. “We had to start entertaining the idea of moving the house. We also care for 30 dismantled art environments, and in many cases these were dismantled before the wrecking ball,” Patterson says. Prepared to do whatever was necessary to preserve the structure of the home, a year was spent in consultation with preservation professionals, conservationists, and architects to see what would be required to successfully uproot the home and transfer it to an undisclosed location in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where JMKAC is based.
  26. 26. 26 This was, of course, the worst-case scenario for many of the site’s devotees. Many members of the public and, particularly, the arts community in Milwaukee expressed disappointment at the decision. Fortunately, JMKAC ultimately decided that the home would remain in situ to prevent any further damage to its structure, and to maintain the integrity of the its physical and conceptual ties to the site. In April 2015, the JMKAC board of directors officially announced that the site’s physical artistic integrity could not be risked by a move, with director Ruth DeYoung Kohler stating: “We have sought the counsel of excellent conservators and preservation architects. Extensive research has brought to light the possibility that significant and unforeseeable challenges associated with a move might put aspects of the art at potentially devastating risk.”16 Moving the art objects, sculpture, and very structure of the house from Fox Point would undermine one of the fundamental appeals of house museums – the context it offer visitors. Nohl’s home in particular would suffer doubly from such an uprooting due to its vital connection to the precise geographical location in which it is located. “We had to come to grips with what the loss would be if we did move it. The sculptures are just too fragile. As far as the house, we weren’t sure if we could actually put it back together again once it was dismantled,” says Patterson. “It’s always the most heartbreaking aspect of moving any art environment. That’s never the preference; it’s always the last option. Your way of engaging changes completely; it’s a different experience together.” However, this has produced another dead end as far as the Nohl house’s potential evolution into something beyond a shuttered former residence. “We have no plans for it to be 16 “John Michael Kohler Center board ratifies in situ preservation of Mary Nohl art environment.” ArtDaily, April 20, 2015,Accessed October 10, 2015, in-situ-preservation-of-Mary-Nohl-Environment#.VrlQWzaOriA.
  27. 27. 27 accessible to the public,” admits Patterson. “We have to go back and again work with the community to see what’s going to happen. At this point we’re just really trying to make sure that the sculptures are stabilized and that the necessary repairs are getting done.” The newest goal appears to be obtaining what’s called a cultural overlay – a provision that would allow for limited public access to the house. However, in order for that particular zoning category to be applied, JMKAC must gain the approval of the immediate surrounding homes. “It’s hard for us because we only rely on people who will talk to us. Some people are just not interested,” laments Patterson. With immediate attention being focused towards restoration efforts, the question of funding becomes pertinent. Patterson admits that the precise budgeting for the Nohl house is “murky” and that the current amount of money allotted for the site’s renovations “is just not sustainable for us.” With a history fraught with uncertainty, from many angles it appears that the future of the house is only marginally more certain than it was a year ago. However, despite the home’s isolation from the public, Patterson remains optimistic about its potential offerings for the academic arts community, something she believes would be in line with Nohl’s own interests. “She believed in artists, and she believed in art students. For a long time Mary was very private and just liked to do her own work. She was happy and contented making, which is why I lean more towards residencies, other than open hours all the time,” says Patterson. “Of course, I’m not a fool. I do think every couple of months we’d have to do tours for potential donors, or maybe even days of the summer where it’s open to the public. We’d have to find a way to get art schools involved. It would be a constant opportunity for learning.” It is, indeed, fitting to picture
  28. 28. 28 Nohl’s home as a potential artist’s residency, allowing artists to live and work in the house again, reenergizing it as living space for artists. Extending beyond the Nohl site, Patterson is an advocate for this kind of tailored approach to house museum presentation and management. “I’ve worked at a few house museums and I think that a funding model as a static house museum is not sustainable,” she says. “I think it behooves house museums to stay relevant. I think what has happened with house museums is that their history has become static. There’s a beginning and an end. And that’s not exactly exciting to fund. There are many ambitious house museums out there, like Jane Addams’ Hull House that are still using the history of the home as a way to talk about contemporary issues. I think that is highly fundable.” Hull House, although not a part of this series of case studies, provides an example of one of the clearest links between the ideals of a home’s founder and its modern-day operations as a museum. Established by social activist Jane Addams in Chicago’s Near West neighborhood in 1889, the home was used during Addams’ lifetime as a settlement house to serve recent European immigrants and Chicago’s poor before expanding its offerings to include a variety of social and educational programming under Addams’s leadership. Designated as a Chicago landmark in 1974, the home was eventually acquired by the University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago’s School of Art and History. Although the original home is still open as a museum, its 122-year-old affiliated nonprofit, the Hull House Association, closed in 2012, prompting hard questions from both the nonprofit and preservation communities. In a 2012 article for Nonprofit Quarterly, writer Richard Cohen questions: “Was it that the modern era Hull House was so different from the Hull House Addams described…that the place had lost its symbolic meaning for the nonprofit sector? Might there have been the presumption that the day of Hull House…had
  29. 29. 29 simply passed?”17 Less philosophically, the root cause of the historical service organization’s demise was bankruptcy in 2012. Presently, the home itself remains in operation as a separate entity through its ties to UIC. New ideas may be the solution to these challenges. Patterson indirectly references an “anarchistic” concept circulating through the preservation community: the idea that the main ‘period of significance’ of a house museum is the present – a concept echoed by other house museum curators. She believes that one of the keys to successfully following this new mandate is for house museums to employ curators who are able to see the full life of the building, from its historical roots to its contemporary status. “When you look at Lisa Stone [curator at the Roger Brown Study Collection], or myself, or even Lisa Lee [visiting curator at Hull House Museum], they have other interests, and are able to see the house museum as a catalyst, as opposed to a stagnant building.” In the next case study, the role of the curator as an agent for change and adaptation will be further explored. 17 Rick Cohen, “Death of the Hull House: A Nonprofit Coroner’s Inquest,” Nonprofit Quarterly, August 2, 2012, accessed November 23, 2015, coroners-inquest/.
  30. 30. 30 ROGER BROWN STUDY COLLECTION Lauded as a cornerstone of Chicago culture by many and decried as overrated by some critics, artist Roger Brown (1941-1997) is remembered for his pointed social commentary directed both at the art world and beyond. Known to skewer art critics with whom he disagreed, both in print and in his paintings, Brown’s work frequently took a political tone. The son of devout Alabama Southern Baptists, his lifelong ties to his family and the South were often in conflict with his adult identity as a professional artist and gay man – a tension that was reflected throughout his work. Brown’s paintings are almost exclusively comprised of stark, graphic, pattern-heavy compositions that frequently draw thematically from the religious allegories heavily present in his southern upbringing. Born in Hamilton, Alabama, in the early 1940s and never rejecting his roots, it was Brown’s childhood in the South that developed his interest in folk art and other cultural objects. Over time, his interest expanded beyond Americana kitsch to include other cultures. The walls, tables, and shelves of his Halsted Street home are filled with all manner of artwork, souvenir curios, and functional manufactured objects. African masks are hung alongside street signs, crosses made of matchsticks line stairwells, and a bust of Jesus Christ sits opposite a miniature statue of Elvis. Despite the staggering range in diverse objects, none of the items in the home feel haphazard or random, but impress the notion of deliberate and thoughtful curation. Brown collected extensively throughout his lifetime during his prolific travels across the United States and abroad, where he cultivated a deep respect and affinity for self-taught artists. Due, in part, to his artistic fame and to the extent and quality of his collections, Brown’s various homes occupy an unmistakable level of status in the realms of both art and preservation.
  31. 31. 31 Although the Alabama native curated fascinating living spaces in La Conchita, California, and New Buffalo, Michigan, which currently serves as a faculty residency for his alma mater, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), his former home in the city of Chicago is by far the most extensive in terms of its visual impact. Bequeathed to the SAIC, where he graduated in 1970, this dazzling example of a Chicago house museum is not only a preservation success story, but also a testament to the many functions and life cycles these unique buildings may ultimately have. Brown acquired the Halsted Street property in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood in 1974. He is frequently linked to a consortium of Chicago artists known as the Imagists, a group identified by their associations with the SAIC and predilection for producing often grotesque, surrealist work in direct confrontation with the fashionable trends of the New York art scene in the 1960s. Built in 1888, Brown’s storefront home was originally located in an area of the city primarily dominated by German immigrants. “It represented very common, ordinary, vernacular buildings that functioned as businesses and homes for a lot of people,” says Lisa Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection, the home’s current moniker. “It was really important for Roger to have chosen that building because he was such an advocate for representing ordinary life in his work, and making his work accessible to ordinary people.” It was this affinity for accessibility that led to the home’s current status as a study collection and resource at the SAIC. “In the summer of 1996, Roger had started talking with school administrators about the idea of offering his homes to the school, and whether they would be able to take over the collection,” says Stone. Brown passed away in late 1997 from complications related to HIV, and given the fairly rapid discussion regarding the fate of his
  32. 32. 32 home, it was not until the fall of 1998 that the school ultimately decided to keep the building intact with all its contents as Brown had given it. However, the building’s fate and journey from unexpected gift to integrated academic resource was far from certain or smooth. “For many years, it hadn’t really worked itself into the school’s process of operations. There was tremendous pressure not to have any additional expenses. There was a long period of stealth when I allowed a lot of neglect to continue because I knew that if I waved my hands too much, the building could be sold,” explains Stone, who had been approached about assuming a curatorial role while still a historic preservation student at the school. Things began to turn around in 2000, when the collection applied for and was accepted into a pilot program offered by the Historic Artist Homes and Studios Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). “This was really a great moment in the study collection’s history because it placed it in a national context as being an important home and studio of a significant American artist that was now recognized by a national registrar,” recalls Stone. In 2007, the collection was awarded a $50,000 grant as part of a Partners in Preservation program also sponsored by NTHP, something Stone notes as ending the most tenuous period in terms of the home’s survival. “From 1997 to about 2007 I was completely a wreck. Nervous. I didn’t have a safe feeling about the home. It was always about money. The school did take the building, so I have to give them credit. When Roger sold the building to the school, they had originally planned to sell it a year and half later and make a lot of money off it,” recollects Stone. “We just went underground for awhile and kept operating really slowly. Sometimes we gave the impression that it was closed, but I never closed it, and it never stopped being a school resource.”
  33. 33. 33 Students have always heavily factored into the upkeep of the home; in 2006, historic preservation students restored the entire storefront as part of a restoration methods class, and according to Stone, classes have always been held at the collection, with or without administrative approval. “Classes began the first day I was on the job,” says Stone. “There was a period of time when we had to call them ‘field trips’ because of the way the building was zoned.” Even with unusually heavy visitor traffic of several fully packed classes per week, not counting outside tours, the preservation decisions at the Roger Brown Study Collection have always been centered on the core notion of maximum accessibility. All of the original furniture, art objects, and home furnishings have never been removed since the site’s transfer to the SAIC, with the exception of loans to other institutions. As a curator, Stone believes that while traditional “velvet rope” preservation methods are deeply ingrained in the professional culture, it ultimately compromises the relationship between a house museum and its visitors. “It is a dangerous thing to let people into the room,” says Stone. “But encountering a barrier when you visit places like these…it creates such a different type of experience. You feel you’re only an observer, not a participant. You feel like an outsider because you’re not truly let in.” She acknowledges that this particular philosophy diverges from the more conventional methods of most house museum curators and preservationists, yet is ultimately limiting to the wider public’s reaction to these spaces. “They’re preserving it in an ideal state, and that’s something I don’t believe is relevant to a house museum,” explains Stone, “Because I think the thing that brings more meaning and value to house museums is that they’re lived-in places. You don’t want them to seem like they’re locked in amber. Security of the objects is really important. You can’t have someone banging into something or grabbing an item when they’re not supposed
  34. 34. 34 to. But I base my own approaches and philosophy on visiting every house museum that I can, and am always testing what feels good, what feels terrible, what surprises me, and what’s meaningful and valuable so that we can try it at home.” Not to say that operation of the collection is not without some structure. Although it is technically open the public, there are no regular hours, and all outsider visitors must pre-arrange private tours – a set-up that seems to complement the home’s deep institutional and financial ties to the SAIC. “That’s one aspect of sustainability for house museums; you have to get bodies in the door to pay admission. SAIC students pay a tremendous amount in admission. So I don’t have to worry about making money based off of visitor attendance,” says Stone. Unsurprisingly, given the uncommon level of open access at the RBSC, there are risks involved with converting such a complex site into a learning environment. Students are given general guidelines on how to interact with the collection’s many objects depending on what kind of class they are taking. However the home’s unique status as a student resource, particularly for art students, has sometimes posed some unique challenges in regards to individual philosophies on how to interact with objects in a museum setting. “A couple of times there were students who were really cagey and expressed to us that their work and their art were about stealing,” explains Stone. “So I’d go right up to them and say hey, you’re not going to be out of my sight for one minute, so just cut the bullshit.” However despite some troublemakers over the years, there have been no major losses or casualties to the collection since the school took possession. Three staff members are required to be present during tours, and Stone selects her staff to be aggressive with potential liabilities. Collection staff is comprised of a mix of rotating and permanent positions. Stone, in addition to a
  35. 35. 35 part-time co-curator, make up the full-time staff, and a mix of graduate and undergraduate workers fill in potential gaps. Of the many unique aspects to the collection, one of the most profound is the connection and deep loyalty with which the staff and volunteers regard Brown. Originally acquainted with Brown in a professional context, Stone is adamant that “I can’t imagine being able to do my job without having known Roger a little bit. The opportunity to talk to him in the process of negotiating the gift of the house to the school was invaluable. I’ll never forgive myself for not being more upfront and asking him a million questions, but I was very aware that he was in the last chapter of his life. He was busy with some final projects, and I was shy. I felt intensely that he needed his time, but it was still incredibly important to my knowledge of him.” In keeping with a preservation and educational mission very tightly routed to the intent of its original owner, Stone believes that Brown would approve of the operation of the collection, despite having given no explicit instructions on how his home should be processed by the school. “I think if the setting is conducive to allowing guests to really experience objects, by just being around them and within them, it becomes something much more than the object; it becomes connected to life, to history, to what could be. It’s different from a lot of house museums, but he believed in connecting through the world by living with things and interacting with them, and these objects were touchstones to fueling his creative work.” Although this path is not feasible for every house museum for practical and personal reasons, most preservationists agree that modern audiences crave a closer connection than that offered by the traditional house museum experience. To ignore these shifting tastes contributes to potential future peril and audience alienation. “Admittedly, many historic house museums might find it difficult, for a variety of legal and emotional reasons, to de-emphasize the period rooms
  36. 36. 36 that have long defined their identity and purpose,” argues Burns in her 2015 article Resource or burden? Historic house museums confront the 21st century. However, Burns acknowledges that “those house museums that are not bound to displaying artifacts or maintaining period rooms may risk detachment from their own histories – particularly if the staff does not engage in other methods of historical interpretation.”18 While Burn’s latter concern is valid, it operates under the presumption that it is not possible for curators to maintain rooms or living spaces with high historical accuracy and additionally foster a museum environment that allows a high level of access to visitors. There are clearly obvious risks to eliminating barriers between house museum patrons and often delicate objects and structures, however as evidenced by the curatorial choices at the RBSC, this level of access is not only possible, but often preferred by audiences. Stone echoes this notion, suggesting that the collection’s decision to let visitors interact with the home as is has created a more meaningful experience. “I observe it all the time, and I see how powerful it is for people to be able to encounter them,” she says. “By leaving it exactly the way Roger Brown left it, we recognize and respect his way of arranging things and creating an ecosystem rather than taking things out of context and locking them into a particular period of time. I think there’s a definite emotional connection and a connection to the fact that things are still allowed to bet that way, rather than taken away and put into a distance.” One unique aspect of the collection is its strong ties to Brown’s own family even after the SAIC’s acquisition of the site. This level of insight and access to an original builder or homeowner is unusual among most house museums, and when available, exceedingly beneficial in terms of making preservation choices to ensure that sites remain at their most authentic state. 18 Andrea Burns, “Resource or burden? Historic house museums confront the 21st century.” Public History Commons, January 13, 2015, accessed January 19, 2016,
  37. 37. 37 Although both of Brown’s parents are now deceased, his brother Greg still maintains an active relationship with the Halsted Street home. When pressed if such a relationship could ultimately cripple the integrity of the preservation choices made for the collection, Stone doesn’t rule out that such a level of insight is not without its own burdens: “That’s an interesting concept, that there are agendas which hobble the mission of these historic house museums. Often they might be unspoken, and people don’t question why things are done a certain way, but you have to. I’m really careful to keep the Brown family in the loop with what’s going on and try to honor their family legacy. Sometimes it’s done on tiptoes, eggshells, whatever.” While the home’s ties to its family are unusually solid, its connection to its geographical location is much more tenuous. Although the neighborhood has undergone several evolutions in the nearly 130 years since the building’s construction, the north side Lincoln Park neighborhood in which Brown’s home and studio now resides is an awkward fit at best. Little connection presently exists between the neighborhood and the artist’s museum. As a result, the collection has primarily turned its focus inward. As an arm of an academic institution, its caretakers have channeled their energy towards being a primary resource for students. Despite the unusual sight of the home’s distinct “Artist Museum” sign in the window amidst designer shops and posh restaurants, moments of spontaneity still arise. Potted plants line the collection’s storefront windows, and not all are original. “One beautiful thing is that one day a woman came in who was interested in the plants in the window. She was moving to Ukraine the next week, and brought this red pot, and said I really want to give this to you. I want it to be in your window because it belongs to you,” says Stone. “I said, of course we’ll take it! I still email her occasionally, and she knows that her pot is still here.”
  38. 38. 38 If out of place in Lincoln Park, the home certainly does not fail to connect to its distinctly Chicagoan, midwestern roots – something Brown was particularly attached to. “When he came to the Midwest, he found himself artistically, and flourished here because of the School of the Art Institute, which has a tremendous history of teaching art in Chicago. He was very much an artist who was connected to the places where he chose to live,” explains Stone. “He was so hardened, and became very anti-coastal, and anti-hegemonic art world. Chicago is the ‘Second City’, and although his history is a more recent one, it’s still very important in the context of the Midwest.” Beyond just a midwestern context, what’s taking place in Brown’s former home has tapped into a much larger debate regarding the future of house museums: how they have been, how they are now, and what they could come to be in the future. Stone frames this conversation neatly within a common preservation term, the ‘period of significance.’ “At this panel I was on in Nashville, there were a lot of historic preservationists who are questioning the “‘period of significance’” that the rigidity of the “‘period of significance,’” she explains. “For example, traditionally our ‘period of significance’ would be 1974-1995, the years that Brown lived here. However, we have retained aspects of the home’s whole history, from the 1880s to the present, which has lead people to say that the ‘period of significance’ is now. The questions are how we can keep history elastic and accurate, while preserving, teaching, and interpreting legacy. It got me thinking maybe the ‘period of significance’ is later.” The field of historic preservation is at its core a scientific practice. And like most branches of science, the actual process of preserving will always require a certain rigidity of standards and protocol. However, it would be fatal for protocol to stand in the way of innovation, particularly in the conversation of house museums. An eye for growth, not traditionalism, should
  39. 39. 39 be at the forefront of the mind of the forward-thinking curator. The reinterpretation of the “period of significance” is an important step forward.
  40. 40. 40 CONCLUSION These three case studies provide only a cursory look at the vast network of house museums in the Midwest. However, even within this small sampling some distinct trends emerge. Most evident is that change is at the forefront of nearly all of the conversations conducted with the curators of these distinct niches in the museum landscape. Adaptation, reinterpretation, and access are more than just buzzwords, they are the driving forces to fulfilling long-term goals for survival. In her assessment of the long-term value of house museums as historic and cultural resources, Andrea Burns, is optimistic about the potential effects of such debate and discussion: “Rethinking and reinterpreting how traditional historic house museums can reach new audiences will surely support their continued historical power. Hopefully public historians will soon view these 13,000 plus museums as representative of an abundance of riches, rather than a burden.”19 Whether it is the push to engage new audiences at Glessner House, or the Kohler Art Center’s fight for the survival of Mary Nohl’s home, or the reinterpretation of what makes a house museum at Roger Brown’s home and studio, it is clear that maintaining the status quo leads to a path of extinction. The role of journalism in this narrative plays an often understated, yet crucial role. Conversations facilitate the exchange of ideas, and reporting and engagement of these often overlooked locations helps to open up the miniature worlds contained within house museums to a much wider audience than most contemporary curators or historians likely ever could. Change rarely occurs in a vacuum, and even a decade after his original inquiry regarding the future of 19 Ibid.
  41. 41. 41 house museums, Moe concedes that “what I do know is that there are still thousands of historic house museums in the United States, mostly run entirely by dedicated volunteers, which are financially strapped, struggling for visitors, and badly in need of repair. The basic points I tried to make…have taken on even greater urgency if communities are to do right by the places they have already determined to be important.”20 House museums are, indeed, important. Sites like Glessner House provide us with a tangible, physical opportunity to step into the past, while environments and collections such as those of Mary Nohl and Roger Brown continue to enchant and engage us. However, the responsibility does not solely fall on the communities that contain these homes, as Moe suggests. The preservation of not only the physical structures of these sites, but also of the model of the house museum itself, requires an effort spanning all levels of the art industry; historian, curator, and journalist must work in tandem to engage with one another and protect the vitality of these special places. 20 Moe, “Are There Too Many House Museums?” Forum Journal 27, 55.
  42. 42. 42 Bibliography Brehmer, Debra. “A Single Woman Is a Witch: Battling to Save the Art Environment of Mary Nohl.” Hyperallergic, December 12, 2014. Accessed July 23, 2015. environment-of-mary-nohl/. Burns, Andrea. “Resource or burden? Historic house museums confront the 21st century.” Public History Commons, January 13, 2015. Accessed January 19, 2016. Cohen, Rick. “Death of the Hull House: A Nonprofit Cornoner’s Inquest.” Nonprofit Quarterly, August 2, 2012. Accessed November 23, 2015. of-the-hull-house-a-nonprofit-coroners-inquest/. Glessner House Museum. “The House.” Accessed March 19, 2015. Graham, Ruth. “The Great Historic House Museum Debate.” The Boston Globe, August 10, 2014. Accessed March 19, 2015. great-historic-house-museum-debate/jzFwE9tvJdHDCXehIWqK4O/story.html. Harris, Donna. New Solutions for Historic House Museums: Ensuring the Long-Term Preservation of America’s Historic House. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007. “John Michael Kohler Center board ratifies in situ preservation of Mary Nohl art environment.” ArtDaily, April 20, 2015. Accessed October 10, 2015. preservation-of-Mary-Nohl-Environment#.VrlQWzaOriA. LaTrace, AJ. “Concerns Raised Over City’s Management of Its Oldest House.” Curbed Chicago, January 7, 2016. Accessed February 4, 2016. Moe, Richard. “Are There Too Many House Museums?” Forum Journal 16 (2002): 4–11. Moe, Richard. “Are There Too Many House Museums?” Forum Journal 27 (2012): 55–61. Reddin, Matthew. “A House Divided.” Milwaukee Magazine, July 7, 2014. Accessed November 23, 2015,