A Cause Too Lost?
New Hampshire Can't Afford to Care for its Landmarks.
By Sheryl Seyfert | Online Only | Nov. 9, 2007
Was there even a cause too lost,
Ever a cause that was lost too long,
Or that showed with the lapse of time to vain
For the generous tears of youth and song?
—From Hannibal, by Robert Frost
UPDATE: The Frost Farm's roof will be repaired this year, and things are starting to look up for New Hampshire's state-owned historic sites. In September, the state established a new bureau of historic sites. Once staffed, the Bureau will be able to use funds appropriated to begin addressing the long list of work that needs to be done at New Hampshire’s many historic sites. Robert Frost’s home in Derry is near the top of this list, along with the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth, the Franklin Pierce Homestead, and the Sawyer House at the Daniel Webster Birthplace.
One can easily imagine Robert Frost in the two-story white clapboard house in Derry, N.H., where he lived from 1900 until 1911 and wrote much of his early poetry. The soapstone sink in the kitchen is original, and his Royal Doulton china is still there. The rosebud wallpaper in the master bedroom and "oatmeal" pattern in the front parlor are similar to the original. There is even a replica of the Morris chair Frost bought while a student at Harvard University.
Along with the large white barn and scenic pastureland and woods, the Frost Farm seems picture-perfect. But all is not well. Like many state-owned historical sites in New Hampshire, years of neglect by the financially-strapped state parks department have jeopardized the landmark, and the Frost Farm is now in critical condition.
"The foundation of the barn, which houses the exhibits, is crumbling," says Laura Burnham, chairman of the farm's trustees. "The concrete apron of the main entrance has collapsed, creating an uneven surface over which someone could stumble. Water is seeping into the cellar of the house. The living room walls are bulging and cracking, and the ceilings upstairs are unstable."
There's more. A circuit breaker in the cellar has rusted, creating a potential fire hazard, Burnham says, and a contractor told her that the roof of the barn could collapse under the first heavy snowfall.
The parks department asked the American Conservation Consortium to do an assessment of the Frost farm. "The report said if the foundation and the apron of the barn went unaddressed, it would be a safety hazard, and the farm would have to be closed," Burnham says. "That was two years ago."
The Frost Farm isn't the only New Hampshire landmark in trouble. Daniel Webster's birthplace in Franklin is closed except for occasional special events because the Sawyer house has been declared unsafe. Because a developer wanted to build a subdivision on the 140-acre property, the National Trust named the Daniel Webster Farm one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in June 2005.
In Hillsborough, the siding is rotting on the childhood home of Franklin Pierce, the nation's 14th president. In Portsmouth, at the Wentworth-Coolidge mansion, the former home of the state's first royal governor, moisture is damaging its fragile 18th-century wallpaper.
And this spring, the residents of Allenstown, who in 1991 deeded an architecturally rare meeting house to the state so it could be preserved, asked the state to transfer its title back to the town. The state agreed.
The problem isn't that the state parks division doesn't care about its historic properties. It's that it doesn't have the money to adequately operate and maintain its 40 state parks and 20 historic sites. New Hampshire is unique because its division of parks and recreation must cover its costs with visitors' fees, without any help from the state's general fund.
"It's an impossible situation," says John Merkle, a member of the board of directors of New Hampshire's Preservation Alliance. "Historic properties don't generate any revenue to speak of, and they require a high degree of maintenance. It's a system set up to fail."
Last year saw a $1.5 million shortfall in revenues, resulting in a budget cut by 25 to 30 percent this year, according to Allison McLean, director of the state division of parks and recreation. As a result, she says, "certain properties have reached a crisis level, but everything needs some level of work." In fact, McLean admits, there's a $1 million backlog of maintenance and repairs for the historic sites alone, never mind the work needed on the parks.
Spurred by mounting concern, the state established a commission a year ago to study the park system. Chaired by state Sen. Bob Odell (R), the commission made the first of its recommendations this summer. Among them was the establishment of a Bureau of Historic Sites to be funded by tax revenues. "If we don't get this through," Odell says, "New Hampshire will have to get out of the historic-site business, which would be a shame for the state's heritage."
Merkle, who is also a member of the commission, says the state's economy is also at stake. "Heritage tours are an important resource for the state," he says. "History-minded visitors stay in hotels, dine out, and buy souvenirs." McLean also sees potential revenue in the state's sites. "Traditional museums across the country are seeing a decline in visitors," she says, "but heritage and cultural sites are the second-fastest growing attraction."
After the commission completes a series of public hearings, it will make further recommendations. In the meantime, the trustees of the Frost Farm are waiting to hear whether the U.S. Senate will pass the federal transportation bill with $300,000 added to it by U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) to fix the foundation of the Frost house and barn.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is also involved. According to Rebecca Williams, field representative for the Northeast Office, the Trust is writing letters to legislators, urging them to change the state's funding mechanism. Another tool the Trust is considering, she says, is adding New Hampshire's landmarks to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
"We felt it was imperative," Burnham says. While there are officially 3,000 visitors to the farm each year, Burnham says the real figure is between 12,000 and 14,000. "Official visitors are those who pay for the tour, but New Hampshire seniors get in free. Other people come for the interpretative nature trail or to read Frost's poems on the lawn." Last year, she says, people from 46 states and 14 countries visited the farm. "We felt we absolutely had to be open more then just weekends."
According to McLean, one of the positive things that has come out of this crisis is that the state is reconnecting with various grassroots groups. "We can't do it alone, and they can't do it alone," she says, "but together, we can accomplish quite a bit."
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