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Surviving and thriving

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Executive Director Karen Binder (left) and Capital Campaign Co-Chairwoman Joan Abrams are looking forward to a host of improvements that will expand and enhance the visitor experience at Blithewold.

Richard W. Dionne, Jr.

Executive Director Karen Binder (left) and Capital Campaign Co-Chairwoman Joan Abrams are looking forward to a host of improvements that will expand and enhance the visitor experience at Blithewold.

Occupying a struggling niche, East Bay house museums are bucking the national trend, growing endowments and making long-range plans for the future.

At a time when house museums nationally are closing in record numbers, and others are repurposing their uses and missions to provide badly-needed revenue streams, properties in the East Bay are going strong. That’s a ray of sunshine in a region that has become accustomed to bleak economic forecasts.

A lot of the reason our house museums are relatively strong is because of the architectural “climate.” New England properties are older; they are more historically authentic.

The wedding business has been a tremendous boon as well. According to Jim Connell, Executive Director of Linden Place in Bristol, “We are really fortunate to have such a great wedding industry here in town. Not only does it keep our revenue stable, it’s an enormous economic engine. Small businesses from restaurants to florists, caterers and musicians, all benefit.”

While some might suggest that the wedding traffic dilutes the mission of these historic properties, those intimately familiar with house museum’s balance sheets would argue that without the wedding traffic, there would be little mission to protect. Wedding revenue keeps local house museums  operating in the black. “It allows us to fulfill our primary objectives of preservation and public accessibility,” says Mr. Connell. “We’re preserving our history for future generations.

While Linden Place is strong, another Bristol property, Blithewold, is the textbook example of the comeback kid.

When Marjorie Van Wickle Lyon (whose father built Blithewold after “discovering” Bristol while having a boat built locally) died in 1976, she bequeathed her property to a Providence-based nonprofit organization. It was her wish that her gardens and family home would be preserved and made available to the public in perpetuity. As it turns out, “perpetuity” almost ended two decades later.

In 1998, due to severe financial difficulties, the property was weeks away from being leased to a private developer, permanently closing off public access. A small group of East Bay residents quickly formed Save Blithewold, Inc. in order to keep the property open to the public. After an initial—and massive—fundraising effort (netting $600,000 virtually overnight), the group was able to obtain a 99-year lease to operate and manage the property.

In the fifteen years since, Save Blithewold, Inc. has grown to a $1.2 million dollar per year organization that welcomes more than 38,000 visitors annually, invested more than $3 million into capital projects throughout the property, grown the endowment from $0 in 1998 to $5 million today, while offering a steady stream of educational programs for children and families. Blithewold was recently invited by the National Park Service to prepare an application for National Historic Landmark status, an impressive, and uncommon designation.

Under the leadership of a talented and dedicated board, and Executive Director Karen Binder, Blithewold is close to completing a $3.0 million capital campaign which was launched one year ago, with $2.61 million raised to date. Raising that kind of money has not been easy, but Blithewold was fortunate to be on the receiving end of large challenge grants from both the Champlin Foundation and Dorrance Hamilton, both of which are matching donations of individual donors.

Slated for improvements and updates are the greenhouse complex, visitor center, dock reconstruction, a special events structure, an ADA-compliant entrance and bathroom, fire and security upgrades, and an updated HVAC system for archive and collection preservation. “These improvements will be a win for both Blithewold and the town of Bristol,” says Ms. Binder. “We’re looking forward to working with the Historic District Commission as well as the Planning and Zoning boards, and we have been grateful for their past support.”

Consultants initially targeted $13 million in “enhancements,” but a prudent board pared those down to $2.5 million. According to Capital Campaign co-chairwoman Joan Abrams, “We learned the lessons of the last twelve years. We aren’t building a monument here—everything we are doing is targeted to enhancing the visitation experience. Our primary mission is to welcome repeat visitors many times a year, in all seasons.”

We want our neighbors to visit often, and we want to be the first place they bring visitors from out of town.”

Programming ranging from horticultural seminars to family fun days to bring-your-own-picnic outdoor theater productions truly offers something for everyone, and serves Blithewold’s mission.

Blithewold is not an austere, intimidating property. “It embraces you,” says Communications Director Tree Callahan. I often overhear people walk into the home and remark that they could live here.”

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  • Published: 6 months ago on October 7, 2013
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