Panic in the House Museum!

Panic in the House Museum!

There was a time when interesting people routinely left their curious and captivating residences to the public for the benefit of posterity. That was the idea when Victor D’Amico, founding director of the Education Program at the Museum of Modern Art, and his artist wife, Mabel, created their home museum in Amagansett. Built in the early 1940s by the same couple, its windows show off Maple’s stained glass constructions and views of Gardiner Bay. The airy interior contains exquisite artifacts associated with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), such as the museum’s first boardroom tables (now reserved for dining), dozens of artworks, design experiments, and Maple’s handcrafted jewelry. There’s also a museum for the property’s second house, a repurposed fishing shack where Jazz Age portraitist Alexander Brook once entertained his New York theatrical friends.

But unfortunately, the Damikos family left no one stopping them. The museum is supported in part by a school, the Art Barge, a dry sea barge in Napeague owned by MoMA where East Enders and summer visitors have taken art classes since 1960. The rest is down to the tireless efforts of Christopher Cohan, chairman of the institute’s board of directors, who works on D’Amico Art Institute since he took a class there nearly 50 years ago.

In the old days, Cohan says, the East End had wealthy summer visitors who enjoyed playing bohemian and were happy to cash big checks if they found a cause they liked. But today, even though the area has become a magnet for billionaires, those checks have become harder to come by. Despite the area’s vaunted artistic roots, it is now more of a “real estate investment location,” he says.

Sir John Soane's House Museum

Sir John Soane’s Museum in London remains largely its namesake, bequeathed by the neoclassical architect who designed the Bank of England and offering visitors a glimpse into high life in the 19th century.

Gareth Gardner

As McMansions cover the landscape and the wealthy put their money into their non-profit causes and art spaces, it’s fair to wonder if the home museum might be a dying breed. Even if someone had the desire to open their home to the public, with a branded collection of artwork no different than what was there next door, would that be something they would really want to see?

“The reason we like to visit many house museums over and over again is that they show us a way of life that no longer exists,” says Chad Gracie, a New Orleans-based designer. “There are existing homes that are exciting and strive to create a sense of wonder, but to be a house museum, you have to have a story.” Take, for example, Villa Vizcaya in Miami, home of Gilded Age man James Dearing. “The bathrooms were sophisticated when they were built, but they’re outdated to us,” Grassi says. “We don’t know what the future holds. Maybe it’s worth looking back and maintaining a modern farm from 2023.”

“Houses that are exceptional, unique pieces of architecture will always have a future,” says architecture critic Paul Goldberger, pointing to innovations like London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum, the home and laboratory of the neoclassical architect who designed the Bank of England. Built at the turn of the 19th century, filled with arches, domes, skylights, interior spaces and stunning courtyards, it remains much as he left it, crammed with its collection of antiquities, furniture, architectural models and artworks by the likes of Turner, Canaletto and Hogarth.

The Barnes Foundation building looks south on July 9, 2018, in Philadelphia, photo by Michael Perez

The Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia, may look like a house museum, but its founder, Alfred Barnes, first opened a residence and museum in Merion, Pennsylvania. His collection moved to a new building, designed by Billy Tsien and Todd Williams, in 2012.

Michael Perez

In fact, thoughtfulness, individuality, and attention to detail are perhaps what distinguishes truly great home museums. The peculiarity of the installation—the fact that he could have hung a metal door hinge next to Renoir—is what makes many believe that the Albert Barnes Museum was his home, when in fact he lived in Merion, Pennsylvania, where his collection was originally housed.

Hillwood was Marjorie Meriwether Post’s wonderland of French and Russian decorative arts, located in a Georgian mansion in Washington, DC. It’s filled to the gills with Sèvres porcelain, Fabergé eggs, and even her clothes, shoes and jewelry, and one feels that the General Foods mogul could have made the house museum interesting even if she was pretending to be a penniless bohemian. Beach in Amagansett. This, ultimately, is what appeals to the ideal home museum, Goldberger says: “It takes you to another world.”

While the eccentricity of Barnes or Post may not sit well with today’s more subdued local tastes, the public appreciates the idiosyncrasies of house museums—especially when it comes to homes once inhabited by artists. The 61 museums on its list bring in more than a million, says Valerie Balint, director of the Consortium of Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios, a program run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which recently added the D’Amico house to its portfolio. Visitors annually, and the number is rising. “We often think, is a house museum relevant?” Balint says. “But there is a growing desire to engage with these places of creativity, where the experience is immersive and tangible.”

Bathroom with basin and chairs

Hillwood Estate, Musum, and Gardens is located in Washington, D.C. in the former home of Marjorie Meriwether Post. Highlight one? Pink bathroom.

Eric Kvalsvik

The same is true for other types of house museums, says Howard Zahr, executive director of Lyndhurst Mansion, a Gothic-style mansion built in 1838 in Tarrytown, New York. “There were always people who built exactly what their neighbors did, and then there were people who did something unique and interesting.” Lyndhurst was bequeathed to the National Trust by Anna Gould, Duchess of Talleyrand-Périgord, in honor of her father, the railway magnate Guy Gould, and its buildings and collections are important. Designed by 19th-century American architect Alexander Jackson Davis for William Paulding, the former mayor of New York, its holdings include furniture, sculptures, ephemera, and women’s fashions, as well as an art gallery filled with works by Gustave Courbet, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and Jean-Léon Gérôme — artists of status of the time . However, “the most common question you’re asked during a tour is: What’s your heating system?” Zar says. “From the cultured down, people innately understand what it means to have a house, what it means to have a big house,” an appreciation fueled by high-toned historical TV series such as Bridgerton.

In fact, Lyndhurst’s fame rose significantly due to her appearance on one such show, an HBO show. The Gilded Age. It served as the site of one character’s dining room, the offices of a newspaper, and a library New York GlobeCentral Park, and more. Although the show is purported to be filming in the stately homes that once lined Fifth Avenue — buildings that were about “wearing the price tag on the outside,” Zar says — it can’t be filmed there because most of them have long since been demolished. .

Today, many major collectors are opening their own outdoor exhibition spaces, such as Mitchell and Emily Ralls, who in 2006 opened Glenstone, a secluded museum and sculpture garden in Potomac, Maryland, or architect Peter Marino, who laid out his eclectic collection in 2021. A view in Southampton of a 19th-century building that was once a library, dubbed ‘The Frick by the Sea’. (The real Frick Collection, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, is actually a house museum. Cohan says he remembers visiting it as a child and meeting a woman he believed to be Frick’s daughter, who asked him how he was having fun.)

Garden Court within the Frick Collection

The Frick Group is headquartered in New York City, in the Fifth Avenue mansion where Henry Clay Frick once lived. The building is currently undergoing renovation, so the collection is currently housed in the Brewer Building on Madison Avenue.

Jeff Greenberg//Getty Images

The typical way to do this is to transfer ownership of the collection to a non-profit foundation, which also manages the museum. It gets more complicated if you want to keep the collection with the house. Most people donate both through a will, in which case the value is deducted from the estate, according to Thompson Mays, general counsel for the National Trust. Although the fund rarely accepts unsolicited donations, Mayes has processed several such bequests in his time, including Philip Johnson’s ethereal greenhouse in New Canaan, Connecticut, and Villa Finale, an ornate 9th-century Italianate palace Ten in San Antonio’s King William Historic District. They were saved in the 1960s by conservationist Walter Mattes. But, although he is a fan of house museums, Mayes cautions, “It’s worth noting that sometimes the best way to preserve a house is to keep it in its original use.”

Perhaps that’s because creating a home museum “requires an astonishing amount of money,” says Christina M. Mason, a partner in the private clients practice at the Herrick law firm in New York. “You have to be out of your mind to do this.” Her former firm, Kelley Drye & Warren, had already handled the bequest of the Robert Lyman Pavilion to the Metropolitan Museum when another collector showed up, keen for his collection of nearly 700 mechanical and automatic music boxes to live in in his double-wide townhouse. But his $7 million endowment was not enough. After six months of shopping through the collection, they found a museum in New Jersey so eager to acquire it that it promised to build a new wing. While the advantage of setting up a home museum is “you can create a vision for it,” Mason says it makes much more sense “to give it to an existing museum if they are willing to work with you. And then the problem for the museum is to keep it going. Hopefully it will be long enough.” So that today’s tastes become historically important.

This story appears in the November 2023 issue of City and countryside. subscribe now

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