Site Seeing

Focusing on Sites

November/December 2011

Each year, the editors of Preservation set off across the United States to explore extraordinary, surprising, and evocative National Trust Historic Sites . In 2010, we chronicled 16 sites from New Mexico to New York. This year, we visited 12 more—from the home of one of the Founding Fathers, to an adobe in a coastal California town, to a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was saved from the wrecking ball. See what we discovered. Read the stories of the women and men who cherished and saved these places. And plan your own voyage of discovery, soon.  

 

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Touro Synagogue ClivedenBelle Grove Montpelier WoodlawnDecatur House Cooper Molera African Meeting House Lyndhurst Gaylord Building President Lincoln's Cottage Pope-Leighey

 

Touro Synagogue
Newport, R.I. • 1763

By Lauren Walser

In 1658, 15 Jewish families whose ancestors had fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal arrived in Rhode Island by way of the West Indies. Settling in Newport, they established a close-knit community and founded a congregation in a colony already recognized for its religious tolerance. A century later, Isaac Touro became the congregation's first spiritual leader and was part of the effort to build an elegant house of worship for the faithful.

Today, that synagogue endures atop a hill near the city harbor—a living monument to religious freedom. "This is both a historic site and a functional synagogue. It has two distinct purposes," says Chuck Flippo, manager of Touro Synagogue's visitors center. "Come in the afternoon and you'll see it as a historic site with guided tours. Come back in the evening and it reverts to its other role—its primary role—as a synagogue."

Touro, the oldest standing synagogue in the United States, remains virtually unaltered since it was completed and dedicated in 1763. Designed by Peter Harrison, a British American merchant, sea captain, and self-taught architect, the two-story Palladian structure accommodates the religious needs of a typical Jewish congregation (for example, the ark containing the sacred scrolls is positioned so that worshipers can pray facing Jerusalem), while also reflecting New Englanders' preference for restraint. Twelve Ionic columns (one for each tribe of Israel) support a second-story gallery; Corinthian columns ringing the gallery support the domed ceiling. Declared a National Historic Site in 1946, the synagogue became a National Trust Historic Site in 2001. 

The nonprofit Touro Synagogue Foundation helps maintain and support the building and grounds. Because the economic downturn in 2008 required major layoffs, the foundation is run largely by dedicated volunteers and one part-time staff person. "But we're ramping up again," says Andy Teitz, foundation chair. "And we're trying to do more outreach and educational events, instead of just sitting here waiting for people to come to our door." To that end, there is an annual reading of a letter George Washington wrote to the congregation in 1790, which states that the young nation "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." 

The foundation was also instrumental in the creation of the Loeb Visitors Center, a two-year-old facility constructed following restoration of the synagogue and grounds in 2005. The center supplements the experience of touring the synagogue with information about the history of the congregation and Rhode Island's contributions throughout the colonial era. "It's important for people to see the overall picture," says Rita Slom, a longtime volunteer.

Touro Synagogue can get lost amid the other attractions in coastal Newport, which boasts a picturesque harbor, sprawling Old Quarter, and notable 19th-century mansions. "Not many people outside Rhode Island know and appreciate the significance of this town, the colony, the synagogue, and George Washington's letter," Chuck Flippo says.

Tourist traffic in Newport peaks during the summer; in cold-weather months the stream of visitors to Touro slows. The schoolchildren who once arrived by the busload from communities in Rhode Island and surrounding states have all but disappeared as public schools trim field trip budgets.

But Touro's commitment to telling the story of religious tolerance in America remains steadfast. According to Meryle Cawley, the foundation's lone staff member, "Touro Synagogue is important because it's a symbol of religious freedom, not just for Jewish Americans, but for all Americans."

 

Must-see: The small trap door located in the platform from which the Torah is read. The founders of the synagogue fled to Rhode Island in search of religious tolerance, so they installed the door as a symbol of persecution and a reminder of the days when they were forced to worship in secret.

Touro Synagogue is located at 85 Touro St. in Newport, R.I. For additional information, see tourosynagogue.org or call 401.847.4794.

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Cliveden
Philadelphia, Pa. • 1767

By Margaret Foster  

In 1767, whenever residents wanted to brighten the interiors of Cliveden, the Georgian mansion in northwest Philadelphia, someone had to open its wide, white shutters, one by one, with a long, wood pole. This task likely would have fallen to one of the enslaved African Americans on the 5.5-acre estate. Today, the ritual is performed by Cliveden's staff—employees who are literally and figuratively letting the light shine upon long-hidden parts of the National Trust Historic Site.

Consider Cliveden's servants' quarters, also known as the kitchen dependency. After a longtime caretaker moved out of the building, local Eagle Scouts offered to clean it up. In May 2011, the three-story building opened to the public for the first time, and the spare, simple interiors are now available for tours.

Benjamin Chew, a Pennsylvania supreme court justice, built Cliveden between 1763 and 1767 as a summer house. A decade after its completion, George Washington's army clashed with British troops in the front yard and inside the mansion during the Battle of Germantown, leaving still-visible scars on both interior and exterior walls.

The last Chew descendant moved out in 1972, the year the family donated the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation—and the year a fire broke out in the carriage house. Mercifully, 200,000 Chew family papers survived intact and are available to researchers. Chew family descendants—including those with African American roots—maintain their ties to the estate, attending events and connecting with the historic site through its Facebook page.

Five years ago, Cliveden's board adopted a new mission statement, one that promised to reach out to the community. The board also hired a former history professor, David Young, as executive director. His staff continues the tradition of Cliveden Conversations, lectures in the carriage house that are designed to bring local residents inside the gates.

"Cliveden was built as a refuge, and it's still meant to be a refuge," Young says. "We can be a historic site that provides a safe and meaningful place to talk about challenges that stem from race and history and help us understand what it is to be an American."

This year, Cliveden staff members have seen more visitors passing through the gates, whether for a conversation, a wedding, art camp, or to tour rooms that hold some of the finest pre-1815 decorative arts and furnishings in the country. "We have this great site, and we're making more and more people aware of it," Young says. "Translating them into supporters is the greatest challenge we have."  

 

Must-see: The map displayed on the first floor of the main house. It's the earliest known map of Pennsylvania, drawn in 1687 by Surveyor General Thomas Holme, who laid the original plan for the city of Philadelphia.

Cliveden is open to the public for walk-in tours Thursday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., April through December. For additional information, see cliveden.org or call 215.848.1777.

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Belle Grove
Middletown, Va. • 1797

By Elizabeth McNamara

Isaac Hite  Jr. was a speculator, a product of Virginia's elite plantation society who amassed vast tracts of property and built a grand mansion to establish his place in antebellum society. When his father gave him and his bride, Nelly Conway Madison, sister of future president James Madison, 483 acres upon their marriage in 1783, he built Belle Grove—one of the most elegant manor houses in the Shenandoah Valley.

As I stood in front of Belle Grove one Friday morning in August, I admired the beauty of the limestone house, and thought of the men and women who had toiled there. Though a light wind combed the grassy landscape, the air was already thick with heat. During the plantation's heyday in the 1820s, this land was filled with orchards, gardens, grist mills, and a distillery; work for those enslaved here was never-ending. 

President Elizabeth McClung says that over the past 12 years she has worked to "round out the story" at Belle Grove, commissioning research on the African Americans who lived here, and on Hite's two wives (Nelly died in 1802) and his six daughters, all of whom were married on the plantation.

"When I got here, it was all about Isaac," she says. "I bet he didn't count on having a woman director coming in to tell the story of his entire plantation community."

The curatorial staff at Belle Grove has also worked to learn more about the plantation's role in the Civil War. According to docent Wayne Sulfridge, "the 1864 Battle of Belle Grove, called the Battle of Cedar Creek by historians from the North, was the last significant battle in the Shenandoah Valley."

The economy of Virginia changed dramatically in the years that followed. The South's planter aristocracy collapsed, and Belle Grove plantation diminished appreciably, to fewer than 200 acres. The Brumback family bought what remained of the farm in 1907. Two decades later, it was purchased by Francis Welles Hunnewell, who began restoring Hite's manor house to its early 19th-century condition and bequeathed Belle Grove to the National Trust in 1964. Today, Belle Grove is the centerpiece of the larger Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historical Park.

On my visit, I walked through the historic mansion, then outside to see an 1815 icehouse, a smokehouse, the blacksmith's forge, and the demonstration gardens. There is also a 32-tree heritage apple orchard.  

As I began my drive back to Washington, I crossed through open farmland and small towns, conscious of the turmoil that once roiled this land. But before long, the traffic of I-66 surrounded me and Elizabeth McClung's words echoed in my head: "We're an oasis of green space in the middle of encroaching development. Today, people come here for peace."

 

Must-see: The portrait of Isaac Hite Jr. in the parlor. He's holding a Philadelphia newspaper targeted by the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Hite ardently opposed. His prominent display of the newspaper makes this stance known. 

Belle Grove is open to the public for walk-in tours Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m., March through October. The house is open weekends in November; check the website for December holiday tours. Tours are available by appointment in the winter months. Advance notice for group tours is appreciated. For additional information, see bellegrove.org or call 540.869.2028.

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Montpelier
Orange Co., Va. • c.1797

By James H. Schwartz

There are historic places that seem frozen in time—silent sentinels where, no matter how often you return, little has changed. James Madison's Montpelier is not one of those places.

Home to the fourth president of the United States until 1836, significantly enlarged by the duPont family, and lovingly protected by Marion duPont Scott, Montpelier became a National Trust Historic Site after her death in 1983. Since then, both the house and the surrounding 2,650 acres have been transformed in a dramatic and ongoing process of preservation and renewal.

"We have a hierarchy of goals here at Montpelier," says Michael C. Quinn, president of The Montpelier Foundation. "First, to authentically restore the home and its furnishings, but also to return the presence of James and Dolley Madison. To make progress toward both of these goals we have and will continue to evolve rapidly."

Restoration at Montpelier began in 2004, after exhaustive research to determine how much of Madison's house had survived beneath later additions. When historians enthusiastically concurred that his mansion could be revealed, rooms added during the duPont era were dismantled. (You can still admire one, the Red Room, because it fills a portion of the William duPont Gallery adjoining the visitors center.)

After deconstruction, researchers spent months evaluating shadows and nail holes in the plaster walls that pointed to the location of original staircases, chair rails, and picture hooks. Restorers also discovered minute threads of fabric behind cornices, which allowed them to identify the color of wall coverings that the president and his wife had installed in public rooms. And craftsmen were able to reproduce entire mantelpieces after surviving fragments were found inside wall cavities.

In the years since the restoration was unveiled to the public in 2008, new discoveries and improvements have continued at an impressive pace. Archaeologists, students, and volunteers are excavating the South Yard. (On the day I visited, one sleuth showed me interlocking fragments of a glazed porcelain teacup pulled from the red clay soil, as well as a rusted bolt from a carriage wheel.) Under the limbs of an enormous walnut tree, crews have erected timber-frame buildings to show the form and location of two smokehouses, a kitchen building, and duplex quarters for enslaved African Americans. Below the front portico, a new picket fence defines the edge of the lawn, the design and placement of the fence confirmed by an 18th-century watercolor and by painstaking excavations that revealed the locations of the original fence posts.

Inside the mansion, two rooms on the first floor—the dining room and drawing room—have now been wallpapered with handmade papers in striking patterns the Madisons would have recognized. Curators recently acquired plaster casts of the busts that Madison kept in the house and installed them as well.

I can't predict what you'll discover the next time you visit Montpelier—things there just change too quickly. But I can guarantee this: You'll enjoy a drop-dead view of the Blue Ridge Mountains when you peer out the windows of Madison's Old Library on the second floor, you'll acquire new appreciation for his substantial contributions to the U.S. Constitution, and you'll have an insider's look at some of the most inspiring preservation work currently under way at a Founding Father's home. 

 

Must-see: The Madison Family Cemetery, located west of the visitors center. Obelisks mark the graves of James and Dolley Madison.

James Madison's Montpelier is located two hours from Washington, D.C., in Orange Co., Va. The estate welcomes visitors every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas and is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., November through March, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., April through October. Candlelight tours are scheduled Dec. 2-4 from 5 to 7 p.m. For additional information, see montpelier.org or call 540.672.2728.

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Woodlawn
Alexandria, Va. • 1805

By Emily Rose

It stands just 30 minutes south of the nation's capital, a plantation stretching over more than 100 acres of Virginia field and forest. Is it Mount Vernon—the home of George and Martha Washington? Close (three miles to be exact), but one generation off. No, it's Woodlawn, the National Trust's first historic site, built between 1803 and 1805 by Washington's nephew Lawrence Lewis, and his wife, Nelly Custis, on land given to them by the first president. Today, their plantation supports a new sustainable farm, and is also home to Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey House, a Usonian-style residence moved here in 1964 to save it from destruction.

The Lewis' stately manor stands atop a hill at the eastern end of the property. Designed by William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol, it's a superb example of the Federal style favored by American architects and builders in the first years of the new republic.  This year, farming returned to Woodlawn with the creation of the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture, a nonprofit partnership designed to support sustainable cultivation methods and invite members of the local community to participate in the life of the estate. 

The innovative partnership is one of Director Laurie Ossman's attempts to address the financial challenges that exist at Woodlawn. This and other historic sites must keep up with a growing number of historic house museums, she says, in addition to an increase in heritage travel options.

And historic properties such as Woodlawn must figure out how to engage visitors in a way that's meaningful and relevant to each individual. "We must be brave enough to give up control, to act as hosts, and allow the property to act as a backdrop for other activities that enhance the visitor's own experience," says Ossman.

That's where the Arcadia Center comes in. The brainchild of restaurateur Michael Babin, Arcadia not only allows chefs and farmers to bring Woodlawn-grown food to local tables, but also enables Woodlawn to extend the visitor's experience to the landscape. "We are taking down velvet ropes," Ossman says. "The Arcadia Center takes away this image of an ivory tower on the hill and instead engages the visitor directly. Woodlawn isn't just a place to look at historic furnishings and architecture—it's a place to interact with a part of history." Indeed, the ideas behind Arcadia—reconnecting with the local community and bringing history to life through experiential learning—can be applied to all kinds of historic sites.

 

Must-see: Ghosts! Staffers say that visitors have frequently reported seeing George Washington galloping across the grounds and a Jazz Age butler closing the house in the evening. L.B. Taylor Jr., author of The Ghosts of Virginia, called Woodlawn the most haunted house in the Old Dominion. 

Woodlawn is located at 9000 Richmond Hwy. in Alexandria, Va. For additional information, see woodlawn1805.org or call 703.780.4000.

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Decatur House
Washington, D.C. • 1818  

By Elizabeth McNamara

Following the War of 1812, Commodore Stephen Decatur Jr. commissioned Benjamin Latrobe, America's first professional architect and engineer, to design a house "fit for entertaining." The result: a three-story, red- brick townhouse dominating the northwest corner of "President's Square," just in front of the Executive Mansion.

"Decatur House was the grandest entertainment space in early Washington," says William Bushong, historian of the White House Historical Association, which operates the site.

Latrobe's Federal residence was completed in 1819—the first private residence on what is now known as Lafayette Square. Because the British had torched the Executive Mansion in 1814, the two houses were under construction at the same time, and historians speculate that builders exchanged materials and engineering information.

Decatur House became home to an impressive list of diplomats and government officials before it was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1956. Last year, the Trust and the White House Historical Association established the National Center for White House History at the house. The center supports research efforts and provides education programs related to the study and history of the White House.

Currently, Decatur House is undergoing an estimated $4 million, three-year rehabilitation, which includes conservation and reinterpretation of the residence and adjoining slave quarters. The house is closed to the general public, but education programs (and some private events) continue as construction allows.

During the school year, children grades four through six visit and participate in plays. Many of the students come from nearby Washington suburbs, according to John Riley, a vice president at the White House Historical Association.

Through those plays, called Paths to Freedom, children learn about slavery and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Those lessons have particular resonance at this Historic Site: Though slave quarters once existed behind many of the townhomes in this part of the nation's capital, the quarters at Decatur House provide the only remaining physical evidence that human beings were held in bondage within sight of the White House.

 

Must-see: The dining room's distinctive floor medallion depicting the California state seal. "Edward Beale installed that inlay in the 1870s," says historian William Bushong.

The entrance to Decatur House is at 1610 H St. NW. Regularly scheduled tours have been suspended to facilitate preservation and conservation, but the gift shop remains open and the operation of education programs and special event site rentals is unaffected. For additional information, see decaturhouse.org or call 202.218.4338.

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Cooper Molera
Monterey, Calif. • 1823

By Susan C. Kim

Preservationists are naturally curious, so it comes as no surprise that the wonderfully preserved Cooper Molera Adobe in Monterey, Calif., is a magnet for visitors interested in historic places. Part of the "Island of Adobes" at the core of Monterey's Old Town Historic District, the nearly three-acre site offers visitors both tranquility and a surprising glimpse into the lives of Monterey's rich and famous during the first decades of the 19th century, when California was still part of Mexico.      

The adobe was built by Capt. John Rogers Cooper, who sailed to California from Boston in 1823. Recognizing financial opportunities in the vibrant Mexican state, and perhaps appreciating the Mediterranean-like weather, he settled in coastal Monterey. He later joined the Catholic Church, changed his name to Juan Bautista Rogerio Cooper, and married Maria Geronima Encarnacion Vallejo, a woman from a prominent California family. After becoming a Mexican citizen, he was granted a parcel of land in the town center, upon which he built the adobe equivalent of a mansion.

Cooper's house impresses today as a fine example of Monterey Colonial design.

Within the adobe, visitors find two completely different interior styles. That's because Cooper sold half of the house and the western portion of the lot in 1833. A succession of owners held title until Manuel Diaz purchased their interest in 1845 and began using parts of the adobe as a store and residence. 

Cooper's portion of the house is decorated with ornate floral wallpaper and carpets, and fancy chairs and tables. (The Steinway piano he had shipped here still fills a corner of the downstairs parlor, and original chinaware found during an archaeological dig on the property is also on display.) By contrast, rooms in the Diaz half are sparsely furnished. The only indications of luxury are found in the lacy white linens adorning the canopy bed. "Mexican women of that period cherished their beds and linens," says Matt C. Bischoff, state historian III in the Monterey District Office.

After Cooper and his wife died, their daughter, Ana Cooper Wohler, inherited the Cooper portion of the property and purchased the Diaz portion to reunite the two halves. At Ana's death, the property went to her niece Frances Molera, who eventually deeded it to the Trust. The property was declared a National Trust Historic Site in 1968.

"Restoration began here after the adobes became part of the Monterey State Historic Park in 1972," says Bischoff. This included intricate interpretation of the house, and later, careful decisions on what types of vegetation to plant.

"What you see today are only plants that might have existed during that time period," he says. The yard, filled with fragrant heirloom plantings and shade trees, has become a popular setting for children's programs, holiday events, and weddings.

Bischoff notes that in recent years, the California state park system has suffered draconian budget cuts. "Those cuts have forced us to lay off staff and to defer repair on the structures," he says, but neither Cooper Molera nor any other portion of the Monterey State Historic Park is slated for closure.

"What's fascinating about Cooper Molera is that it offers visitors a long timeline of history—not only Monterey history, but California history and western history, all in one place. It's a slice of life from Old Monterey. That's why it's crucial to preserve the adobe for future generations."    

 

Must-see: The archaeology room, which shows the "guts" of an adobe. The room was purposefully left unfinished, allowing visitors to see the stone foundation, exposed adobe walls, excavated floor space, and the techniques used to restore the adobe in the 1970s.

The Cooper Molera Adobe is located at 525 Polk St. in Monterey, Calif.  Public tours are offered Saturday and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. $5 tickets are sold at the Pacific House Museum south of Fisherman's Wharf on the day of the tour. Capacity is 15 persons on a first-come, first-served basis. For additional information, see PreservationNation.org/coopermolera or call 831.649.7118.

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African Meeting House
Nantucket, Mass. • c.1827

By Lauren Walser

The African Meeting House on Nantucket may look tiny, but this modest shingled building has played a significant role in the history of the storied island off the coast of Massachusetts. The simple post-and-beam structure was built by trustees of the African Baptist Society in the 1820s and served for two decades as the only school for the island's black children. It also became a social hub for Nantucket's free African American community and was used as both a church and a community meeting house in ensuing years.

Over nearly a century, the meeting house stood witness to dramatic changes that swept over the island, among them the growth of abolitionist societies (some of which gathered in the meeting house in the years leading up to the Civil War) and the end of segregation in Nantucket's public schools in 1846. The structure also welcomed a vibrant cast of characters who individually and collectively helped shape African American history on the island.

"A lot has happened here," says William Oliver, who with his wife, Renee, has been running the National Trust Historic Site for the past three years. "Now people can come and actually feel and touch the building where it all took place."

According to the Olivers, there are plans to restore three outbuildings on the property (a shed, a cottage, and a garage, all dating to the 1930s) to provide additional event spaces, much-needed storage, and lodging for visiting researchers.

"We're kind of off the beaten track," Renee says, "so it's nice when people take the extra time to come find us." And well worth the effort.

 

Must-see: When you step into the meeting house, look up: The walls curve seamlessly into the ceiling, creating a form similar to the interior of a ship's hull—an appropriate detail for a structure built by craftsmen steeped in boatbuilding. 

The African Meeting House, located at 29 York St. on Nantucket Island, is open to the public from June to October, seven days a week. For additional information, see afroammuseum.org or call 508.228.9833.

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Lyndhurst
Tarrytown, N.Y.  • 1838

By Lauren Walser

Twenty-four miles north of Manhattan, where the Hudson River seems as wide as the ocean, a collection of asymmetrical towers, turrets, and pinnacles rises from the landscape. This fantasy of stone and glass is not a castle—it's Lyndhurst, one of the finest Gothic Revival houses in America. Designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis, the mansion stands at the center of a 67-acre estate, and served successively as a country retreat for the families of William Paulding, a former mayor of New York City; George Merritt, a successful merchant; and railroad tycoon Jay Gould, whose family owned Lyndhurst for 80 years before turning the property over to the National Trust. Originally called "Knoll," the house was renamed by Merritt for the linden trees planted around the property.

Today, Lyndhurst is filled with objects from each of the families, including original pieces by Louis Comfort Tiffany, Herter Brothers, and Davis himself, as well as a stunning collection of 19th-century paintings. And the verdant landscape, with gardens, trails, and groves of specimen trees, provides a bucolic backdrop for anyone seeking a peaceful escape.

The house's dramatic silhouette and picturesque grounds have made it a popular location for private events, including weddings, bar mitzvahs, and corporate retreats since the National Trust opened it to the public in 1965.

To capitalize on the seasonal beauty of the Hudson River Valley, Lyndhurst has also hosted a number of annual events: a biannual craft show, a summer jazz series, and an autumn scarecrow festival, among others. One of its main attractions has been "A Fairy Tale Holiday," inspired by Merritt's outstanding collection of 19th-century fairy-tale books. Each December, 16 rooms are transformed into various fairy-tale settings.

The staff at Lyndhurst continues to look for new ways to attract visitors to the estate; some will come to  stroll the landscaped grounds, others to attend private functions. Revenue from private events supports the site, which for years has existed in a precarious financial—and indeed, structural—state. The porous limestone facade of the main house suffers from extensive water damage, and the roof hasn't been properly repaired for years. Many of the outbuildings, including a two-lane bowling alley and a once-thriving greenhouse, stand vacant, awaiting badly needed repairs. Still, Lyndhurst attracts more than 57,000 visitors annually, and remains an important outdoor gathering spot for locals in a region facing increasing development.

Docents and tour guides hope that visitors will discover Lyndhurst and experience it in a variety of ways, whether walking their dogs, picnicking on the grounds, or taking in the Hudson River scenery. That's how generations have enjoyed Lyndhurst.

 

Must-see: Tucked in the corner of Jay Gould's office is a wheelbarrow with an attached odometer—a tool he used as a young man working as a land surveyor in his small farming community in the Catskills. Historians say that Gould was proud of being self-made; the wheelbarrow provides a tangible link to his early endeavors.

Lyndhurst is located one-half mile south of the Tappan Zee Bridge on Route 9 in Tarrytown, N.Y. For addtional information, see lyndhurst.org or call 914.631.4481.

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Gaylord Building
Lockport, Ill. • 1838

By Gwendolyn Purdom

In 1838, after construction began on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, workmen built a two-story limestone warehouse in Lockport now called the Gaylord Building. The facility became a National Trust Historic Site in 1996. It has variously provided storage for industrial tools, housed a general store, a grain storage facility, and a lock foundry. And today, it's an outstanding example of a historic building used in an entirely new way—the only National Trust site where adaptive use has always been a stated goal.

In the 1980s, printing tycoon Gaylord Donnelley led an effort to rehabilitate the then-decaying structure. His renovations were intended to echo the period when his grandfather George Gaylord owned the building in the late 19th century.

Adaptive use was Donnelley's goal, and when the Gaylord Building reopened, it incorporated a restaurant, banquet hall, museum gallery, and visitors center—all intended to jumpstart revitalization in Lockport's historic district. And it worked. In 1988, a year after the revived Gaylord complex reopened, President Ronald Reagan rewarded Donnelley's efforts with the President's Historic Preservation Award.

Today, displays on the first floor document the history of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. Upstairs, a gallery features a rotating collection of artifacts and images, which has included antique canal route maps and vintage newspaper illustrations. Outside the arched doorways, where grain wagons were once loaded and unloaded, a public green space lined with maple trees honors Abraham Lincoln's connections to the canal. Admirers of the 16th president can enjoy informative sidewalk plaques, an indoor exhibit chronicling Lincoln's legislative support for the canal, and an unusual bronze sculpture of the young politician near the water.

Although some historic sites have only recently begun exploring alternative programming, the Gaylord has long embraced innovation.

"We have always been an adaptive reuse facility," says Site Director Mark Harmon, "and we are looking to embrace that even more. We hope to be a model historic site that somewhat breaks the mold of the traditional historic site."

 

Must-see: A collection of candid images by local photographer H.H. Carter. Shot in the early 20th century, the photographs were some of the first to capture Lockport residents going about their daily lives rather than sitting for formal portraits. 

The Gaylord Building is located 40 minutes from Chicago, in Lockport, Ill. The building is open Tuesday through Sunday except major holidays, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For additional information, see gaylordbuilding.org or call 815.838.9400.

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President Lincoln's Cottage
Washington, D.C.  • 1842

By Sarah Campbell

In 1842, George Washington Riggs built a Gothic Revival cottage on the outskirts of the capital. Just nine years later, the wealthy banker sold his house and surrounding 256-acre estate to the federal government, which established a home for disabled war veterans on the property. Starting with James Buchanan, the Soldiers' Home invited sitting presidents to summer on the property.

The 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, first saw the Soldiers' Home a few days after his inauguration in 1861. He eventually spent a quarter of his presidency in residence, working on the Emancipation Proclamation, reading, and trying to relieve the burdens of office. Historians know he walked the grounds the day before his assassination.

This is the house where Abraham Lincoln played checkers with his son Tad, where he quoted poetry to visitors, where he held meetings and political strategy sessions as the Civil War dragged on. But most interestingly, this is a place where Lincoln lived: "For years, there was a gap in what we knew about Lincoln and his presidency," says Erin Carlson Mast, the site's director. "The National Trust changed that. To understand Lincoln and his presidency, you really need to be in this place."

There are few objects inside the cottage, other than a replica of Lincoln's desk and original portraits of George and Martha Washington. Mast explains the reasons: "We uncovered a ton of primary sources about Lincoln's daily life here, but very little about furnishings or decorative arts. Because Lincoln used this place to reflect, the ability [for visitors] to reflect is key." As James Vaughan, a former National Trust Vice President of Historic Sites put it, "The cottage is furnished with Lincoln's ideas."

Programming at the restored cottage is designed to humanize Lincoln. As we walked through the 10 rooms on the tour, our guide played audio and video clips, in which actors recited quotes from the president, Mary Todd Lincoln, and cottage vistors.

Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester Arthur also resided here (it often seems 10 degrees cooler on the hillside—a welcome sensation if, like me, you visit in August), but after the turn of the century, presidents vacationed elsewhere. In ensuing years, President Lincoln's Cottage served as an infirmary, the first women's dorm on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home, and as a bar and lounge. In cooperation with the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the National Trust assumed stewardship in 1999 and opened the cottage to the public in 2008. "There's not only a lot of ongoing preservation," Mast says, "but also more to learn about how the cottage looked during the Lincoln era."

What astounded me was the atmosphere here. It's quiet, and slower. There's heaviness in the air, a solemnity weighted by the history of the place. It knows, and you know, the ordeals it has borne.       

 

Must-see: The ghost lines of missing bookshelves in the library. Erin Carlson Mast says, "Reading was important to Lincoln as an escape and a way of educating himself. Seeing those ghost lines makes you think of what might have filled those shelves."

Access to President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home is through the Eagle Gate at Rock Creek Church Road NW and Upshur Street NW. For additional information, see lincolncottage.org or call 202.829.0436.

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Pope-Leighey
Alexandria, Va. • 1940

By Emily Rose

In 1939, a young journalist named Loren Pope wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright, the 72-year-old architect celebrated for Fallingwater, only recently completed in Bear Run, Pa. Pope explained that he owned just over an acre of land in Virginia and hoped that Wright would design a home for him. Three weeks later, Wright replied with characteristic hauteur. "Dear Loren Pope, Of course I'm ready to give you a house."

Completed in 1940, the one-story, 1,200-square-foot structure brought the Pope family unremitting joy. Nearly 70 years later, Loren Pope remembered that "just being there simply made us feel fulfilled and happy and proud … The whole effect was a lift for our souls."

The Popes eventually sold their property to Robert and Marjorie Leighey; after his death, she donated the house and its furnishings to the National Trust in 1964. Highway construction threatened the future of the structure, so it was moved to the grounds of Woodlawn, where it was carefully reassembled (see p. 28).   

Whereas Woodlawn is a sprawling mansion that relied upon enslaved people toiling both indoors and out, Pope-Leighey seems tiny—especially from the outside. As you walk through the front door, the scent of cypress from the wood paneling and beams infuses every room—a delicate yet persistent reminder of the natural and sustainable materials Wright favored. Once you are inside the living room, the line of clerestory windows and the unexpected ceiling height lend a welcome sense of space.

When Site Director Laurie Ossman ponders the future of Pope-Leighey, she considers rethinking the role of the house tour: "The idea of a conventional tour just isn't as appealing today." Asked what a different kind of house tour would look like, she says, "We could provide a complete experience for the visitor. Maybe even open up the house for people to stay here once again."

Ossman may not have all the answers, but she knows that success demands interpreting Pope-Leighey in a way that is both meaningful and irresistible to visitors. If Loren Pope's house is indeed opened up for visitors who are welcome to spend the night, I'm putting my name on the list. 

 

Must-see: The c. 1940 appliances and devices in the house.

Pope-Leighey House is located on the grounds of Woodlawn at 9000 Richmond Hwy. in Alexandria, Va. Guided tours of the house run for 30 minutes, Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The last tour starts at 4 p.m. Admission is $15 to tour Pope-Leighey and Woodlawn, $8.50 to tour just the Wright house. For additional information, see popeleighey1940.org or call 703.784.4000.

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