Economic Downturn Has Surprising Benefit for Hermitage Restoration

Strategy: Balance Your Budget, Be Creative (More with Less)

Type of attraction: Museum/Historic Site

Summary: When President Andrew Jackson’s stately Greek Revival mansion was finished in 1836, the centerpiece of this 1,000-acre plantation near Nashville, Tennessee looked as if it was built for the ages.

When President Andrew Jackson’s stately Greek Revival mansion was finished in 1836, the centerpiece of this 1,000-acre plantation near Nashville, Tennessee looked as if it was built for the ages. Over the next 175 years, the home withstood the Civil War, faulty repairs in the 1930s, damage from a 1998 tornado, and the relentless effects of time – as well as tens of thousands of visitors each year since the home was opened to the public by the Ladies’ Heritage Association in 1889.

“The building had materials that were deteriorating, and paint was peeling. The columns and entablature were coming apart, bricks were crumbling, and mortar joints had water infiltration,” says Howard Kittell, president and CEO.  “Restoration plans began in 2008 before the recession. The state awarded a $1 million grant, a portion of which was directed to hire a restoration architecture firm to do a structural assessment of the mansion’s exterior and to develop restoration plans.”

In November 2008 three things happened – Kittell arrived ready to take on the restoration project as the new president and CEO, the architecture firm presented a $1.5 million price tag for repairs to the mansion, meaning more money would need to be raised – and the nation’s economy sank into a deep recession.

“We had a certain time requirement to spend the state grant, so we asked the architects to take the whole list of repairs – gutters, windows, mortar joints, broken brick, inappropriately restored brick, wood restoration and painting and to group the work into three ‘bundles’ of projects that related to one another so we weren’t doing tasks that depended on another that we couldn’t fund or that would require duplicate work in the future and incur more expense,” Kittell says.

Once the estimates for three phases were determined, requests for proposals were issued in May 2009. When the bids were opened in July, The Hermitage staff was shocked. The bid selected was 52% of the architect’s original estimate. “We were stunned,” Kittell says. “We kept looking at the bids to see what they had missed.”

Surprisingly, the economic downturn had actually worked in The Hermitage’s favor. “Both labor and materials were lower,” Kittell says. “The contractor was willing to do the project without much overhead to keep his workers employed. The end result was that by raising an additional $100,000, we were able to do phases one and two which were the most critical.” Funds that are being raised for phase three will be used to correct drainage problems around the mansion and systems upgrades.

The lower costs also meant that restoration work could be done on three historic log buildings – the farmhouse which was the Jacksons’ original home, a nearby kitchen and a cabin which was the home of Alfred, an African-American who had been one of Jackson’s slaves and who continue to live  at The Hermitage until his death in 1901.  

“All of the log buildings had serious deterioration problems,” Kittell says. “Because of the lower costs, we were able to wrap the log structure restoration into the two phases of the mansion’s restoration.”

By August 2010, restoration of the log buildings was completed. In early 2011, “the mansion is done,” Kittell says. “The only work left is to paint the capitals.”

For more information, visit www.thehermitage.com.