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General Dawes, meet Mark Twain

The Evanston History Center has new company in being the operator of a historic home that’s having trouble covering its costs.

The New York Times today reports that the non-profit group that runs the three-story Victorian mansion in Hartford, Conn., that Twain lived in while writing most of his famous books may be forced to shut down for lack of funds.

The story in Hartford is playing out on a larger scale than the troubles facing the Evanston non-profit that keeps the memory of Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, General Charles Gates Dawes, alive.

The Twain mansion drew 68,000 visitors last year, compared to 750 who toured the Dawes house.

The Hartford group got into trouble as a result of cost overruns in building what turned out to be a $19 million visitor center. It’s already had to lay off 32 of its 49 staff members and has pared its operating budget to $2.9 million

The Evanston group hasn’t been able to fund repairs to the Dawes house on its $250,000 annual budget while operating with a staff of seven, and has failed to reach agreement with its landlord, Northwestern University, for a new lease on the site.

Marge Wold, chair of the Evanston History Center board, said today she’s continuing to have talks with Northwestern officials, but they’ve reached no definite agreement yet.

She said she doubts a deal will be reached in time for the history center’s annual meeting June 18, but hopes a solution can be found within the next month or so.

Ultimately, she said, the board hopes it can either acquire the building from the university for a reasonable price, or get a new long-term lease.

University Vice President Eugene Sunshine say the building needs as much as $4 million in repairs. Dawes left the school an endowment fund which Sunshine says totals about $1.5 million. Wold says the history center has an endowment of about $1 million.

The history center’s previous lease with the university ran out about 18 months ago, and the city fire department ordered the building closed to the public this spring because of fire code violations after the university requested an inspection.

Sunshine say that if the history center leaves, Northwestern would either sell the building for a private residence or use it as a home for a university employee.

House museum operators in various parts of the country reportedly have faced increasing problems in recent years as public interest in the buildings has faded. 

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