The second oldest home in Knoxville is the James Park House, located downtown on Cumberland Ave. Google Street View doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s better than the photo I tried to take with my phone while stopped at a red light a couple of days ago.
I wanted to snap a picture of the Park House because it’s got an interesting connection to John Sevier. “Nolichucky Jack” didn’t live here, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Sevier purchased this downtown lot and started building a home there in the 1790s, around the same time he was serving as Tennessee’s first governor. Construction didn’t get very far. Nothing but a brick foundation and part of a wall had been completed before a financial setback forced Sevier to abandon the project. For a man so accustomed to winning, whether on the battlefield or in politics, it must have been an irksome disappointment. He sold the lot to his son G.W. Sevier in 1801, and it passed out of the family’s hands six years later.
James Park, an Irish immigrant and Knoxville mayor, bought the lot and built the current structure on Sevier’s foundation in 1812. The house stayed in the Park family for a century; after that, it served time as a Red Cross facility and a medical academy. Gulf & Ohio Railways acquired it to use as a headquarters building a few years ago and undertook an extensive restoration.
Although Sevier never got to build the home he wanted on the lot, it’s just a stone’s throw from the courthouse lawn where his remains were reinterred in the 1880s. One fellow who did get to spend some time in the Park House was Sevier’s mortal enemy Andrew Jackson, who stopped by for a visit in 1830.
In a sense, the story of the house lot on Cumberland Ave. mirrors the larger story of Sevier’s place in Tennessee’s history. In both cases, Sevier secured the land and laid the foundation, but it was left to others to build up the structure, which obscured and overshadowed the contributions of the man who made so much of it possible. And in both cases it happened around the same time. While James Park was building his house in 1812, Sevier’s great rival was on the brink of national fame and state preeminence, but Sevier himself was in the twilight of his long and very eventful life.
A Boston Globe article on the precarious state of historic house museums has been making the rounds:
Although some well-known house museums are thriving, many smaller and more obscure places are struggling. Their plight is so drastic that some preservationists are now making an argument that sounds downright blasphemous to defenders of these charming repositories of local history: There are simply too many house museums, and many of them would be better off closing.
The argument has reached a surpisingly fevered pitch. Since the turn of the millennium, high-profile preservationists have published articles in scholarly journals and professional publications with incendiary titles like “Are There Too Many House Museums?” and “America Doesn’t Need Another House Museum.” They have held conferences and panel discussions on the so-called crisis with titles like “After the House Museum.” Stephanie Meeks, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is among the critics, even though her own organization maintains 20 house museums of its own. Turning old homes into museums has long been “the go-to preservation strategy,” she said. “But there are only a handful I can think of that are really thriving with that model.” Last fall, Meeks delivered a pointed keynote speech at the National Preservation Conference titled “House Museums: A 20th-Century Paradigm,” in which she argued that the traditional house museum model is often financially unsustainable and has been drastically overused, and preservationists must look beyond it. “The time for talk has ended,” she announced, “and the time for action is upon us.”
I’m probably not the most impartial observer here, because I used to run a historic house museum and now I’m on the board of another one. But I think we need plenty of small HHMs, and here are a few reasons why.
- HHMs give small communities access to the museum experience. People in urban areas shouldn’t be the only ones whose lives are enriched by having a cultural institution in the neighborhood.
- They help instill a sense of local pride in small communities, a feeling of ownership of one’s past and one’s own place in the world.
- Small HHMs help nurture a well-rounded view of the past by reminding us that history isn’t always about great men, grand buildings, and dramatic battles. Critics who wonder why anybody would spend money maintaining the home of Joe Schmoe, an ordinary nineteenth-century lawyer from Podunk, are missing an important point. HHMs of that sort are important precisely because Joe Schmoe’s life was ordinary and unexceptional. The palatial homes of the rich and famous tend to be the ones that endure, but most of our ancestors weren’t living at Tara. It’s the mundane aspects of the past that tend to get lost in the shuffle.
- HHMs are still one of the beast means to keep historic structures intact. The Globe article notes that you can keep a historic house standing even if it’s no longer functioning as a museum. That’s true, but I can’t think of many alternate uses where the integrity of these buildings is such a priority, and where preservation is done so well.
- HHMs are training grounds for the employees of other cultural institutions. A lot of the people who are running the bigger museums, historical societies, and preservation organizations first got their start in some small HHM. When young folks looking for a career in public history ask me for advice, I always tell them to find some small institution in their own neck of the woods and start volunteering or doing part-time work there. Just about every public history job posting is going to require one thing of applicants, and that’s experience. There’s no better place to get your feet wet than at a small site where you can wear a lot of hats.
A lot of small historic house museums are teetering on the brink of closure, and no doubt many of them are beyond saving. But the answer to the precarious state of small HHMs isn’t to cull the herd. What we need is to foster close cooperation among smaller house museums, to make sure that historical and museum organizations keep these smaller sites on their radar, and to encourage professionalism and dedication among the people who oversee small HHMs so that the directors, curators, and site managers have what they need to do their jobs and keep the doors open.
When a historic home closes and a community loses access to a piece of its own past, it’s not a Darwinian winnowing out of the public history profession. It’s a small tragedy.
Usually you hear about a historic site disappearing because somebody is building a parking area. This time a historic structure is disappearing because somebody is demolishing a parking area.
One of the most historic U.S. journalism sites will vanish after a Virginia county board voted to demolish the building and parking garage central to the Watergate political scandal of the 1970s.
The Arlington County Board agreed on Saturday to raze the Rosslyn garage where FBI official Mark Felt secretly met with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal. The investigation led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Felt was known for decades as Woodward’s source “Deep Throat.”
Kind of seems like a shame, but at least there’ll be a marker at the spot.
The Kentucky Heritage Council is holding a pretty neat contest to celebrate National Historic Preservation Month.
In addition to the annual running of the Kentucky Derby, May is National Historic Preservation Month, and the goal is to highlight the many different kinds of historic places that Kentuckians feel at “home.”
“Historic places matter to Kentuckians. We want to invite people to share how and why they value Kentucky’s historic places, and build interest in the reuse and preservation of historic buildings,” said Craig Potts, KHC executive director and state historic preservation officer. “We want people to be able to tell their own story about how historic buildings and places make them feel.”
To enter, participants download the contest sign, found at http://www.heritage.ky.gov, or make their own; hold it in front of their favorite “Old Kentucky Home”; get a snapshot; then “like” the Heritage Council’s Facebook page at facebook/kyshpo and submit it to win – the only rule being, the site must be 50 years old or older. Participants will be asked to tell where the photo was taken, and why the place photographed is special.
Participants may submit one photo per Facebook account, but can vote once a day for their favorite photos. Posters are encouraged to share all their photos on social media using the hashtag #myoldkyhome and tweet their photos to @kyshpo.
The contest period began at noon (EDT) today and continues through midnight (EDT) Friday, May 23. The top five photos with the most “likes” will go into a random drawing to determine the winner, who will be announced during the last week of May. The grand-prize winner will receive an all-expense paid weekend in Bardstown, courtesy of the Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist & Convention Commission.
The prize package includes overnight accommodations at one of Bardstown’s historic bed and breakfast inns, a gift card for downtown dining or shopping, and admission for two adults to My Old Kentucky Home State Park/Federal Hill; The Stephen Foster Story (June 14-August 16, 2014); Civil War Museum of the Western Theater; a private tour of Wickland, the home of three governors, or a visit with the Spirits of Wickland; Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center; Barton 1792 Distillery; and Willett Distillery.
Federal Hill is a beautiful site, and if you haven’t been, this would be a good chance to win a free visit.
The historic place in Kentucky where I feel most at home is Cumberland Gap. (Well, it’s in three different states, but Kentucky is one of them.) I’m also partial to Lincoln’s birthplace, Fort Boonesborough, the Old Statehouse Historic District in Frankfort, the Midway Historic District, and Boone’s gravesite.
The Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build additional faculty housing at the Rev War battlefield has hit a snag. A state regulatory commission has blocked the proposal because of its proximity to a local stream.
Check out this article about the preservation and maintenance of the desks in the U.S. Senate chamber. I didn’t know that some of those desks have been in use since 1819.
Every desk has been examined for damage, scratches, structural issues and cracks in knobs or feet. Of the 100 desks, about a third needed some maintenance, the curator said — mostly to fix scratches on the surface or broken wood.
The goal of the restoration was not to make the desks look as good as possible by refinishing them, but rather to fix the desk parts — not replace them — to keep the historical integrity intact.…
Some desks are considered such historical treasures that the Senate has passed legislation officially assigning them: the “Webster desk” always goes to the senior senator from New Hampshire, while the “Clay desk” goes to the senior senator from Kentucky. The desk used by Jefferson Davis, who would become president of the Confederate States of America, is assigned to the senior senator from Mississippi.
More info about the Senate desks here.
David Schwimmer had an 1852 East Village townhouse torn down to make way for his new digs, so an irate New Yorker retaliated by painting “Ross Is Not Cool” at the construction site. I got a pretty good chuckle out of it, which is more than I can say for the average episode of Friends.