The Trouble of Preserving Authors' Homes

The Trouble of Preserving Authors' Homes

 Photo by Florian van Duyn on Unsplash

Photo by Florian van Duyn on Unsplash

Despite the obvious barrier of money, there's another massive barrier to preserving authors' homes: deciding which ones should be preserved when the author moved around a lot throughout their life. 

Some authors like Hemingway and Twain have multiple homes that have been preserved, but others, including authors we might think of as being on equal literary footing, haven't been so lucky. 

This past summer I went on a road trip, which included a jaunt to Minneapolis. Knowing F. Scott Fitzgerald was from a St. Paul suburb, I was super excited to check out a Fitzgerald museum when I got there. 

You can imagine my surprise when I realized there wasn't one! It was unfathomable to me that a literary giant like Fitzgerald wouldn't have a dedicated museum in his hometown. 

Apparently, Fitzgerald lived in so many places around Minneapolis/St. Paul that he requires a walking tour to see the various locations. However, none of them are actually tourable. You can look at the buildings from the outside, but you can't go in because they're all residences or offices. Some locations have historical markers, but not all of them do. 

While it would've been cool to see a Fitzgerald house with a historical marker (and of course take pictures for this blog), I ultimately decided it wasn't worth it to go an hour round trip from the place I was staying just to stare at a house that now belonged to some random person. I'm sure whoever lives there is used to strangers showing up to stare at their home, but it just didn't seem worth it to me. (Thank goodness I had other reasons to be in Minneapolis or I'd have been sorely disappointed.)

Later on that same road trip, my partner and I were driving through Iowa on our way to Dubuque and we saw a sign for the Laura Ingalls Wilder house. We had no idea it was right along the route we were already planning to take! And that's how we ended up in the little town of Burr Oak, Iowa. 

One of the first things the guide mentioned on the tour was that Laura and the Ingalls family only lived in their house in Burr Oak for three months. I thought it was strange they'd turn a house Laura had only lived in three months into a museum of her life and work. Why not the house where she was born or where she wrote her books?

I thought it was strange until the museum showed a short film detailing the Ingalls family's many moves. During Laura's young adulthood, they probably moved around 20 times! They stayed mostly around the Midwest, but went as far as Florida for a time. No wonder there are several "little houses on the prairie" that have been preserved and many more that have been lost to time. 

When you imagine an author home that should be turned into a museum, you're probably thinking of the place the author was born or the place where they wrote most of their books. But if the author was born in an apartment, or if the building has been torn down, or if others moved into the home after the author moved out, or if the author moved around a lot, there can be a lot of obstacles to creating a proper museum. 

At first, I was disappointed upon finding out that the house I was touring in Burr Oak had only been lived in by Laura by three months, but after learning how often she moved and how little time she spent in each place, how could I be disappointed? At first, I worried her living there for such a short time made the house less "authentic," but any house I could've visited would've been about the same.

Another complication, especially for authors that moved around often, is that it's possible every town they lived in wants to preserve whatever author home they have. That means artifacts from the author's life are divided among multiple museums. This was true for the house in Burr Oak and, as such, it's more like an homage to the era and life in the town rather than being about Laura Ingalls specifically.

Meanwhile, if the author lived in a city, the real estate might be deemed too valuable to turn into a museum. If the real estate is deemed to be more financially lucrative if it were turned into apartments or retail space, it may be too expensive to turn that location into a museum. Considering the trouble Langston Hughes' fans and Harlem residents are having preserving his NYC home, I'm guessing that's why Fitzgerald's homes around the Twin Cities haven't been preserved either. 

Museums are also incredibly expensive to staff and maintain. When I visited the Hemingway museum in Oak Park, Illinois, just outside Chicago, a few years ago, I distinctly remember the guide saying they had to make some repairs on one small corner of the house. To complete the repairs and refurbish the repaired area to be historically accurate, it cost nearly $1 million. A MILLION DOLLARS ON ONE CORNER. I would've thought that might have been how much the entire house cost to remodel, but it wasn't even close.

It makes you wonder how any author homes exist as museums given the uphill battle to preserve them and make them accessible. I hope this will inspire and encourage you to visit the author homes that do exist and donate as generously as your means will allow to help ensure their survival. 

 
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