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Rethinking the modern house museum

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

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois.
Library of Congress

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.”

The David & Gladys Wright House is in Phoenix, Arizona.
Courtesy of Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty

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.”

These house museums, whether its a massive, Gilded Age mansion displaying priceless art or small, eccentric home run by volunteers, constitute a significant portion of the American cultural industry. There are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, nearly double the combined attendance figures for all major league sports and theme parks, a stream of visitors that supports more than 726,000 jobs and contributes $50 billion to the U.S. economy.

But outside of famous sites with the stature of Monticello, home museums—especially those focused on architecture—struggle to stay afloat in today’s cultural, and attention, economy.

According to Jorge Otero-Pailos, an architect, artist, and experimental preservationist who teaches and serves as the director of the preservation program at Columbia University, the financial struggle comes from the government’s divestment from heritage. In Europe, the government makes things happen by setting up bureaucracies and preservation tools. In the United States, preservation has been pushed off to the private sector and philanthropy. While that has created a free market for saving spaces and buildings, it’s also complicated the financial picture for smaller institutions.

“If you think about it like advertising and the competition for advertising dollars, things that get more eyeballs, like the Super Bowl, get more money than, say, a 3 a.m. advertisement,” Otero-Pailos says. “That’s a big issue. If you translate that to art and architecture, the big, well-known, well-situated sites in major urban centers, with lots of population and tourist dollars, draw the most visitors, and end up being the most financially successful.”

Ben Schulz, dressed as colonel David Humphreys, talks to guests during the holiday tour of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate December 4, 2004 in Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Getty Images

From Mount Vernon to modern homes

The historic home model traces its beginnings to our first president, or at least, to his home. In the 1853, a wealthy South Carolina woman, Ann Pamela Cunningham, created a private group, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which united to protect Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate, which by the mid-19th century had fallen into disrepair.

The movement to save Mount Vernon became the model for similar history buffs and private groups across the country. As the Boston Globe reported, the concept, which some called “museumification,” took off, focused first on Revolutionary War sites. By the early 20th century, homes with significant architectural history became targets of preservationists. The bicentennial in 1976 tapped into latent patriotism and led to a new wave of preservation and protection. Over the last few decades, architectural groups have turned their attention from modernist favorites to post-modern and late modern structures, such as the Vanna Venturi house.

The sad irony of the Mount Vernon example, according to Stephanie Meeks, President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is that its success created and legitimized an idea—selfless citizens band together, raise money, and create a museum that saves a landmark—that doesn’t always work. In an interview with the Boston Globe, she called it a “beguiling exception.”

The Farnsworth House
Getty Images

As Malone-France of the National Trust told Curbed, the David Wright house exemplifies the financial challenge underlying any preservation effort. By design, Rawling, the initial benefactor, had a multifaceted plan for using the site, and raising funds, because visitor revenue simply wouldn’t cover upkeep.

There’s a reason some of the most famous modern homes have been donated or adopted by larger cultural institutions, such as the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana (now a remote site of the Indianapolis Museum of Art) or the John Lautner-designed Sheats-Goldstein home in Los Angeles, recently bequeathed to the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum.

“The first and fundamental challenge is the idea that we could support the long-term operation and preservation of these places simply through tour revenue,” she says. “It’s not just that that model stopped working. It’s that it never really worked.”

Malone-France says the Historic Trust has found a diversified economy is needed to support ongoing preservation of house museums, with four or five different revenue streams contributing to preservation and stewardship.

Take, for example, the Farnsworth House, Mies van der Rohe’s modernist masterpiece in suburban Plano, Illinois, a sleek, glass box located in a clearing near the Fox River. The National Trust, along with Landmark Illinois, bought the home via auction in 2003 for $7.5 million, fearful at the time that there was an urgent threat of the home being moved. Preservationists immediately confronted the most common problem plaguing owners of old homes; unexpected costs. Repeated, and recently increased, flooding may require extensive and costly flood mitigation efforts.

Visitor receipts from static programming simply won’t cover this kind of expense, which is why the Farnsworth house has expanded its programming, with special events, art happenings, even a special light show by local group Luftwerk, all part of an effort to attract new and repeat visits.

“The Farnsworth House is a place where we want to carry forward its legacy as being so influential in the world of art and design,” says Meeks. “Our programming makes sure it stays relevant, attracts diverse audiences, and gives them multiple entry points. They can appreciate the landscape and the Fox River, come on a kayak tour, or visit the grounds for bird-watching or other recreational activities.”

Another Trust property, the Glass House, which has a substantial endowment that the Farnsworth House doesn’t have, also does its best to broaden its appeal and relevance, with art shows and special events throughout the year. It even offers site rentals and overnight packages starting at $30,000.

“We’re focused on the creation of diversified economies,” Malone-France says. “It takes all of that.”

In addition to the challenges of upkeep, modernist home preservation also runs into the problem of acquisition costs. Christopher Wilson is chairman of the board of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, which helps protect the city’s legacy of modernist buildings. Many of the buildings on his organization’s radar, including Paul Rudolph beach houses built in the ’50s, may have been inexpensive, experimental structures decades ago. Beachfront realty isn’t quite as affordable these days.

“The biggest challenge with a lot of these buildings is they’re sitting on million-dollar waterfront properties,” he says. “When they do come up for sale, they aren’t listed or protected, and they basically get bought and torn down. There’s a challenge when the property value is so much greater than the value of the actual house. It’s quite a threat to the existence of these properties. That’s our biggest challenge.”

Visitors at the Philip Johnson Glass House Inaugural Gala Picnic at New Canaan on June 23, 2007 in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

Wilson’s group has found alternatives to the typical acquisition strategy of other groups. In addition to the growing Sarasota Mod weekend, an annual event which brings thousands of architecture fans from around the world to the Gulf Coast, the group does occasional tours of homes such as the Umbrella House. But the Sarasota Architectural Foundation doesn’t have the resources to own the property outright. Instead, a benefactor who bought the home allows them to host occasional tours and events.

Waytkus believes part of the solution to these financial hurdles, in a system where the responsibility for such work remains with the private sector, is introducing better tax incentives to encourage preservation.

“Adding a property to the National Register allows a building to put a plaque up,” she says. “You don’t get much more than that.”

Preserving our past, as ideas of home rapidly change

One of the issues faced by nonprofit preservationists, and those wanting to save history from development and the wrecking ball, is one of experience. What do today’s tourists and visitors want out of these homes?

“A historic home is a time machine,” says Columbia’s Otero-Pailos. “It’s the closest thing we have to a time machine, so we have to design that time travel in a way that registers with people.”

He argues that the challenge of future preservation is suspending disbelief, that ability to set the stage so you can enter into the time machine. Visitors want to experience what it’s really like to live in the house, to feel like the owners may have just left to do some errands. That’s why Otero-Pailos, who has been called an experimental curator, often focuses on the entire sensory experience of a home; adding perfume and scents, leaving cigarette burns on a midcentury home (last year, at the Morgan Museum and Library in Manhattan, he experimented with adding scents that helped add historical meaning to the space). He believes comparing home museums to traditional museums does them a disservice; people want to soak in the experience and surroundings, not wait in a queue to cycle through an exhibition and be pushed from painting to painting.

“The challenge for house museums is that they have been created by museum curators and treated as museum objects, and therefore they’re treated as if they were a rare painting,” he says. “You can’t touch it come near it, there’s a velvet rope. It’s a very different experience, constantly standing in the way of your suspension of disbelief. It’s like you’re watching a theater piece and every five minutes someone reminds you you’re watching a theater performance. The house museums need to challenge the idea of curatorship.”

The Umbrella House in Sarasota, Florida.
Anton Grassl

Docomomo’s Waytkus also sees audience expectations shifting. For Baby Boomers, the model of docent-led tours through preserved 18th and 19th century homes was enough. That’s not the case for today’s visitors.

“I’m not sure today’s visitors are as interested in that experience,” she says. “We’re in a different place today, and want more of an experience than a guided tour. Everyone who goes on modern home tours, they typically want the place to themselves, they don’t want to be lead. They want to touch and feel and have a drink at the end. Maybe it’s less about the house and more about the guests. Maybe we just want cool pictures to put on our Instagram feed. ”

In light of the very real financial pressures faced by home museums, the existential question of what we want them to be seems both harder to define and harder to figure out. Do today’s visitors want the “experience” offered by Instagram-inspired design, or as Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange described, a “conveyor belt of experience?”

Or, perhaps the question of what we want our home museums to be is an extension of the uncertainty we feel about our own homes. In the last few decades, technology has rapidly shifted. Imagine children in 2040 walking through a perfectly preserved ’80s ranch house, mystified at a landline telephone. With smart home devices, increasing urban density, and lifestyle shifts, will home, and the signifiers of place, keep shifting?

Otero-Pailos says the museum idea needs to be reimagined in light of cultural shifts in audiences. Visitors are curious about how the other half lives, and how people lived in different times, and that curiosity will only increase in a time of rapid change. Right now, the things that are central to and important to our lives, the weird phones, televisions, and iconic objects of the American home, will disappear of be replaced in years.

“Think of a building like a dance,” he says. “It doesn’t really exist unless it’s being danced. A building doesn’t exist unless it’s being engaged with or performed. There’s a transmission of knowledge that actually happens that can’t really be recorded, experienced or lived. That’s the meaning that you’re transmitting, the experience of that dance.”