Once you've preserved the decaying home of a deceased artist or writer, you've still got to maintain the place. Edith Wharton's home, the Mount in Lenox, Mass., was pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy a few years back. Executive Director Susan Wissler explained that now they have to paint the 25-room mansion every few years and repair bricks and stonework, not to mention cover regular building expenses like heat and electricity.
Should Edith Wharton be your kind of writer, the Mount, though it has a staff of paid guides, is always looking for volunteer tour leaders. And, as at the Millay site, they're seeking help cataloging the writer's library. The Mount offers its premises for weddings, but the marriage karma there is definitely unfavorable. Edith and Teddy Wharton never got along. They lived apart, finally divorcing in 1913. She was madly in love with someone else; Teddy embezzled funds from Edith to support his mistress.
Historic homes are not all female and literary. For a look at the home and studio of two modern artists, visit the Pollock-Krasner house. The home of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner was used in the making of the movie Pollock. You can also visit the SoHo studio of the minimalist pioneer Donald Judd, famous for his box arrangements in wood and metal. A great American 19th-century artist, Frederic Church, whom you would have to call a maximalist, built his flamboyant mansion, Olana, on a hill above the Hudson River.
Under severe budget pressure, the state proposed that Olana close for two days a week, instead of just one. The state estimated it could save $5,000 a year by closing the house on Tuesdays. But the Olana Partnership crunched the numbers and found that the typical yearly income for Tuesdays was $21,000.
Looking for an argument that the place was an asset to New York state, not just an expense, Olana Partnership President Sara Johns Griffen commissioned an economic study that found that Olana's 170,000 visitors a year, added to the employees' spending in the area, put $7.9 million into the local economy. Griffen said most of the phone calls she and her staff field are from people asking where to stay and where to eat. So when you patronize a historical house, it's not just the writer's manse or the artist's studio you're keeping in business.
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