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. 

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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6 Comments

  1. Twain and Dawes: apples and oranges:
    NU not honoring their obligations with regard to life-saftey repairs necessary to the building, and the Twain home failing in CT are two different issues.

    You are misleading the readers’ of this blog when you say: “the Fire Department ordered the building closed” Nowhere does the letter written by Chief Berkowsky “order the building closed”, instead, the letter offers suggestions to keep the building open. Here is what the letter does say:
    “Based upon the fire inspection, my observations and review of the applicable codes, I would impose the following restrictions on the use of the building until improvements are made:

    1. Limited use of the first floor to 50 people at any one time.

    2. Properly mark the west exit from the first floor with exit signs (on battery back up) and remove curtains from exit door.

    3. Properly mark the main entrance with an exit sign

    4. Limit the use of the basement to business use and not more than 5 people.

    5. Properly mark the north exit in the basement to provide a visible second exit.

    6. Significantly reduce or eliminate storage on the upper floor or provide sprinkler protection

    7. The upper floors should not be accessible to the public.

    8. Provide functioning emergency lighting in the public area.

    9. No open flames, smoking or other heating devices shall be used unless permitted by the Fire Department.

    With these measures a reasonable degree of life-safety is being provided. The Code also provides an alternative for these structures by allowing an architect or engineer to determine an equivalency for some or all of the life-safety deficiencies noted.

    The Twain story is about overbuilding and overspending.
    The issue regarding the Dawes House is about NU unilaterally closing the history center for its private, institutional use or financial gain, after failing to honor th explicit intentions of the donor. NU used the report for cover, when it thought no one would see it.

    NU’s VP needs to let a little “sunshine” in and tell people how his “consultants” – there’s some talk they were students – came up with that $4 million number. He needs to release that report.

    The only thing holding up letting kids back in the history center is NU’s greed, not the Fire Department. Henry Bienen (The Grinch) needs to reopen the History Center, now. Either return the deed or extend the lease.

    1. Splitting hairs
      Hi Frank,
      The building has four floors.

      The fire chief ordered two of them closed immediately and unconditionally. (See point #7 in your quote from his letter.)

      He further ordered sharp restrictions on usage of the first floor and basement and conditioned those limited uses on making various repairs first.

      Dealing with a tenant with whom it had been unable to reach agreement on a new lease for over a year, the university chose to close the building to the public completely while allowing the center’s staff to continue to work there while it continued negotiations over future occupancy.

      So, yes, for propaganda purposes, you can argue that the fire chief didn’t order “the building” closed. But it’s a distinction without much difference.

      By the way, the fire chief’s letter in your possession also says that the university gave him “a copy of an assessment report of the building performed by WMA Engineering.”

      Are you claiming that’s a student group?

      Both stories are about house museums that have failed to generate enough revenue to close the gap between their endowment revenue and their ongoing costs.

      You’re free to argue that the university should provide a multi-million dollar subsidy so that another 750 people can tour the place next year.

      But you might better spend your time helping the center’s board figure out how to become self-sustaining — whether at the Dawes mansion or another location.

      — Bill

    2. Dawes House evaluations
      Frank –

      To set the record straight, Northwestern used Wiss Janney Elstner for the structural evaluation and WMA Engineers for the mechanical, electrical, and fire safety evaluations. Both firms were well-qualified for the work. There is some disagreement between NU and EHC about the interpretation of some of the conclusions of the two reports. There is a lot of work to be done to preserve the Dawes House as a National Historic Landmark for future generations, but the house is in reasonably good condition given its age.

      EHC is working to meet the requirements of the Fire Chief’s letter and we plan to re-open as soon as we can.

      Full disclosure – I serve as a trustee of EHC.

      1. Subterfuge
        I saw many holes in the ‘General Dawes Returns’ story – I have pointed out some already.
        I just found an article from the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 15, 1959, page N14:

        Evanston City Dad Balks on Dawes ‘Park’
        Plan is ‘Subterfuge,’ Alderman says

        It seems that back in 1959, the Evanston Historical Society was trying to turn the Dawes property into a city ‘park’, so that the city would maintain the property. Alderman Robert James spoke out against it, saying it was just a plot by the EHS to get the City to subsidize them in perpetuity. a subterfuge to support the society

        Alderman James noted that the city did not need an extra park, as the Dawes building was already across the street from a park…

        It looks like the General Dawes Returns campaign is just another attempt to get someone else – either NU or the City – to subsidize this white elephant.

        plus ca change…..

        I find it ironic that the General Dawes Returns campaign is headed by someone who also denounces Northwestern’s tax-exempt status. I think that this house would have been bulldozed many years ago if not for NU’s tax exemption.

        I urge everyone to look up the article. Those with EPL library cards may find it online on the EPL database of Chicago historical newspapers.

  2. Bill – I think you are missing the point
    Bill – It appears to me the fire chief allowed the building to remain open as a museum – that is the public would be allowed to go on the two floors that have the museum with minimum changes to the building. That is the bottom line.

    He restricted other areas for safety reasons which seems quite reasonable.
    Which had minimum public access to begin with.

    The public has no access to the reports – so we can not review the analysis or conclusions. It is my experience that different professionals will have different conclusions to an analysis of a building and the amount of repairs needed or modifications. Code reviews are subject to the reviewers intrepetation. thus different reviewers may come up with different results.

    We do not know what NU facility staff told the consultants or what direction they were given to come up with the analysis.

    Paul Gottschalk who is on the board is making a statement they are in disagreement over some items thus I am assuming they are having their own professional reviewing the reports.

    Bill yes the bottomline NU is in control of the building -but I think you need to stop claiming the building has some huge life safety problem. since the fire chief did not say that!

    1. Claiming versus reporting
      Junad,
      I did not “claim” anything in this story. I reported what parties to the dispute say is the case. And I will continue to do that.
      Bill

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