Becky Says...

February 26, 2001

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The Museum

A lesson in how not to preserve something.

A little over a year ago, David wrote an essay about preserving the past. I liked it, and told him one of these days I would tell him why. This is why.

Back in my hometown, there is a museum. It's housed in a building that was a hotel for a number of years, then served as a private residence. I spent the first three years of my life in an apartment in an annex off the main building, then my parents bought, from the hotel owners, the lot just below the one on which the hotel was situated. The hotel owners went from being our landlords to being our neighbors, and things were good.

Also housed in the annex was a furniture store, locally owned and operated. After we moved out of our apartment, the furniture store owners leased the apartment space for extra storage.

The last private owner was a dear friend. She was the daughter of the people who owned it when I was a little girl. I know she would not like some of the attitudes involved with preserving the place.

When she was preparing to move to a retirement community, she sold the building (for a small amount) to the county, after learning that they wanted to turn it into a museum of the county's history. She thought this was a marvelous idea, and those of us whose lives had been touched by the building were in favor of it, too. The building was built in 1852, and had been kept up well.

The museum committee took over, and got some help from people who had been active in the county and state history organizations. The first thing that happened was the furniture store people were unceremoniously told to go away---before the time all involved had agreed upon. This created a lot of hardship for the store owners, and was done so that the committee could provide storage for a collection of carriages that a county citizen had given to the group. Apparently he wanted to use his barn for something else.

Unfortunately, the committee also hired an architectural firm that I knew was populated with idiots from another encounter with their work. We now have an 1852 building with a 1980's solarium added to the back. Ohhkay, we'll let that one slide.

As work on the project went forward, someone decided it would be appropriate to put the portable potties for the construction crew at the very far edge of the property. Yes, folks, as you stepped out of your car in our driveway, you could go potty if you took a couple of steps to your left. That should have been our first clue.

Among other amenities the committee added was a new heating and cooling system, complete with a dehumidifier. The drainage from that was allowed to spill out into the street beside the museum, which happens to be the one my home is on. And the way the street sloped, there was always a puddle from the drainage that ended in the middle of the curb cut that begins our driveway. My mother spent several years listening to museum officials buck-passing on this one before the drainage was rerouted. During the ensuing time we had lots of mosquitoes in the summer and a lovely icy patch all winter.

Then came time for the museum itself to open to the public. Inside were antiques and other county history memorabilia in one room, that had been the parlor of the hotel. The former dining room was being used as a gift shop, and the former office area (across the foyer from the parlor) had been transformed into some unholy modern art space, complete with carpet-covered walls and panels to hang anything deemed appropriate for display. Other rooms in the hotel cum museum were designated for classroom space and for office areas.

A few years after the museum opened, it was time to build the carriage house for those donated carriages. The man who donated them also donated money toward the carriage house, which was placed directly behind our home. My mother spent the better part of a year listening to even more construction. And it was during the last of that construction that I wound up moving home to be with her after the first of her three strokes.

One of the first things I wound up riding herd over was getting a watering trough moved off our property and back onto the museum property. This trough was carved out of a slab of granite, and some large piece of heavy equipment was used to move it when they finally did understand that I was not kidding about wanting it out of our back yard.

As a way to use the property in off-hours, the museum rents out their back yard for receptions occasionally. The ones that are stately affairs are lovely. The ones that include amplified music are pure hell, because of the echo factor.

Other things that have happened in that yard include camping out by a group of people "reenacting" a Civil War battle that never happened, and exhibits of sculpture too large to fit the indoor space.

We coexisted peacefully for several years. Then my mother had the second stroke, and wound up in a nursing home. She had expressive aphasia, and I was doing all her serious communicating. The museum director wrote Mother asking for First Right of Refusal on her property. Although he didn't say so in his letter, I'm sure he knew she was ill. Apparently he and the board o' greed thought Someone Quite Stupid had my mother's Power of Attorney, and that if they put the term in lower case and quotation marks I wouldn't understand that it was a legal commitment.

I wrote perhaps the best sentence of my life in reply, when I said, "I do not think it wise to legally encumber the property at this time." I do love coming up with diplomatic ways of saying things.

Shortly after Mother's death, someone on the board did ask me if I had thought about selling it to them, I said my plans were (and are) to return there in retirement someday. That ended the asking for my property.

But the group was really too busy to bother with me at that time. There was another piece of property they were after. The property was on the far side of their parking lot from my house, and the owner died. Another person who wanted to remodel the house and live in it bought it. But the museum folk did everything they could to make him regret wanting to have a home. They tried to have the place condemned, they tried to delay permits, they tried to balk at his doing the work himself (but he was a licensed contractor, so that ploy was laughed out of existence), and they wound up looking like greedy fools. The man is now happily living in his home, with his wife and children.

To close, I'll tell you the absolute tackiest thing I've heard of the museum people doing. The house right beside the museum is owned by a family which was most generous to the museum cause. Several years ago, the husband died, and the couple's children are grown and living elsewhere. Someone from the museum saw the widow a few days after the funeral, on the sidewalk in front of her home. And said to her, "You don't need that big house now. Why don't you give it to us?

For the record, the widow said no.

Text copyright 2000-2001 Becky