Historic homes struggle to reopen in COVID-compliant way

With small spaces and little ventilation, many sites remain closed

THE YEAR 2020 was shaping up to be a banner year for the Orchard House in Concord, the home where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote the classic book Little Women.

On Christmas 2019, the Greta Gerwig film adaptation of Little Women was released, set in a replica of Orchard House. By February, visits to the Orchard House were up 350 percent from the prior year and staff were hiring and training new guides and buying extra store merchandise.

Then in March, COVID-19 hit. Orchard House shut down, and many of the staff were unemployed. By October, despite state guidelines allowing cultural facilities to reopen, Orchard House still had not found a way to reopen safely. “We’re definitely pouring money out and bringing in almost nothing,” said Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House.

As museums begin to reopen, albeit with modifications and capacity limits, the many historic homes sprinkled throughout Massachusetts are facing unique challenges. While a small number of these sites have reopened, the vast majority are still shut tight – some with plans to remain closed until next spring. Historic homes make up around 55 percent of New England museums, and many of the features that make these homes unique – original artifacts and older spaces – also make it nearly impossible to make them COVID-compliant.

“The historic home community is struggling a lot more than the museums to be able to get open,” said Michael Busack, who manages the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard and the Old Manse in Concord, both owned by the Trustees of Reservations. While the Fruitlands has opened some of its galleries, the Old Manse – a house once lived in by writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne — remains closed until spring.

“The difficulty with a historic home is its tight spaces and historic material, so sanitizing, air flow, those types of things are really big concerns,” Busack said.

At Orchard House, for example, the rooms are small, and tours must be guided to ensure the safety of the authentic items. Some rooms are small enough that under state capacity guidelines, only one person can enter at a time. Because of the house’s layout, there is no easy way to skip these rooms.

Turnquist said even if one person could be taken through at a time, hiring guides for personal tours is not a financially viable way to run a business. The organization is buying an online ticketing system and hopes to reopen in some way if virus transmission rates stay low. But, Turnquist said, “We’re spending thousands of dollars just to keep the property safe. The only thing worse would be to have a reopening plan where we lose even more money.”

The challenges are different depending on the space. At Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum that recreates a 19th century village, there are no guided tours, and guests are encouraged to walk in and out of buildings.

There were around 35 buildings open to visitors pre-pandemic. When the village reopened in July, the costumed historical reenactors moved entirely outdoors. Only in October, as the weather turns cold, are staff slowly reopening indoor spaces, with plans to open around 20 buildings.

At Old Sturbridge Village, much of the living history museum was moved outside due to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village)

Derek Heidemann, coordinator of crafts and assistant director of interpretation, said the shoemaker’s shop illustrates the challenges of reopening. The shop is so small – a 10-by-12-foot room with a chimney — that only a single staff member can fit inside under social distancing guidelines. The current plan is to have only the shoemaker inside and let visitors talk to the shoemaker through open windows.

Other buildings are bigger but lack a one-way path. When a building has a different entrance and exit, staff are needed at each door to monitor traffic flow, but those staff are then too busy counting visitors to answer questions.

Heidemann said the village has been trying to figure out how to maintain the visitor experience while keeping staff and visitors safe. “One thing we struggled with through the reopening is we don’t want interpreters and educators to be dealing with policing all the time,” he said.

Historic New England, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic heritage sites, owns 37 historic properties across New England, and only six have reopened their buildings, including the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Gropius House in Lincoln, and the Eustis Estate in Milton.

Peter Gittleman, team leader for visitor experience at Historic New England, said there is visitor interest – tours are regularly selling out in advance. But opening more properties or expanding the currently reduced hours was too complicated given the realities of COVID.

To open, the organization cut tour sizes from between 8 and 18 visitors down to four to six visitors. Rooms without ventilation were closed. Routes were shifted to make sure two tours never crossed paths. One home that previously allowed self-guided tours now requires a guide in order to control capacity. The organization switched from door ticket sales to online pre-purchasing. Guides went through rigorous training covering everything from how frequently to clean bathrooms to how to address a customer who refuses to wear a mask to how a customer with a guide dog affects group size.

“Unlike larger art museums, we have the ability to be more nimble because we’re a smaller operation,” Gittleman said. “For us to say we’ll open Eustis Estate but not Otis House…we had a lot of choices there. We deliberately chose houses we thought would benefit the public the most and where we could safely conduct guided tours.”

The house on Codman Estate in Lincoln remained closed due to COVID-19 on October 18, 2020. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

Keeping a house closed has its own dangers. In addition to the obvious loss of revenue, having people walk through a historic home keeps the air flowing, keeps mice at bay, and ensures problems are noticed quickly, said Christie Jackson, senior curator with the Trustees of Reservations. “When a house gets closed up, this living entity that likes to have air circulating and people and movement suddenly is put into this sort of static state, and that’s when you do see things like mold blooms, you see problems with pests, problems with moths,” Jackson said. “When you go into this lockdown phase for these houses, you actually need to go in more and really keep an eye on things because problems can get bad quickly.”

Dan Yaeger, executive director of the New England Museum Association, said its monthly survey of 120 museums found that in August, attendance was down 80 percent compared to the prior year. He said institutions that rely heavily on tourism have been more affected than those with local visitors. Historic homes have benefited from an increase in philanthropic donations and from relaxed grant guidelines, which let grants be used for operating expenses.

The Paul Revere House in Boston, for example, relies heavily on Freedom Trail visitors – of which there are few. Executive director Nina Zannieri said on an average day, visitation is down 80 percent from normal. Accounting for the home’s decision to reduce the days and hours it is open, it is attracting just 10 percent of the visitors it would in a normal year. Income is down by $1 million, due to a drop in admissions, shop sales, and school tours. The house has stayed afloat through a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, grants, and fundraising, but Zannieri predicted “it’s going to be two pretty tough years.”

The organizations that have been most successful have figured out how to use their homes and grounds creatively.

Curators at the Crane Estate in Ipswich developed a light show, where patrons could sit outside and watch silhouettes in the mansion window while hearing the story of what weekend visitors to the estate would have experienced in the 1930s and 1940s.

Gore Place, a 50-acre country estate, farm, and mansion in Waltham, conducted its traditional plant sale fundraiser online with curbside pickup. Its “Frightful Friday” events involving the telling of spooky ghost stories moved from inside the mansion to outside in a tent. While indoor mansion tours are not happening, Gore Place started offering grounds tours. It has held stargazing evenings with an astronomer, and is planning a Sunday foraging walk with an urban foraging expert who will talk about what local plants are edible.

“We really haven’t been closed in the sense that we’ve been offering different programs since April,” said Thom Roach, director of interpretation and programs for Gore Place. He said programs like a recent Jane Austin talk and garden party actually drew more attendees than usual. “There’s much less competition on a beautiful fall afternoon when everyone else isn’t doing something as well,” he said.

Historic New England started hosting “micro-weddings,” weddings with up to 20 people at its sites, for a cost of $500. Gittleman said organizers hoped to attract 10 weddings, but 30 have been held.

Historic New England had to cancel its annual sheep shearing festival in Newbury, which attracts a few hundred people. Instead, it posted a livestream online of someone shearing a sheep and asked for donations. “We made more money than we would have at the event itself and far more people watched it,” Gittleman said.