How Resident Curators Rescue Historic Properties
The renovations may be dirty, hard, frustrating, exhausting and expensive at first—but the end reward is great.
As director of Abbott's Mill Nature Center in Milford, Matt Babbitt lives in the miller's house and tends to the mill and grounds.//Photo by Leslie Barbaro
By 2004, Hedy Stewart’s husband and daughter had already let it be known that they wanted to live in the Buck Tavern building at Lums Pond, so the family had applied to be resident curators of the nearly 200-year-old building.
But when Stewart entered the home for the first time, she was not favorably impressed. The interior was gutted, water was dripping from somewhere, walls and stairs were covered in what she assumed to be black mold, it stunk and there was a bat in the kitchen. On top of it all, the building had been moved to the site in pieces, but it had never been fully reassembled.
She turned to her husband and daughter and said, “Y’all have lost your minds.”
Living in a house for free is what many people envision when they call Jim Hall, director of the resident curatorship program run through the Delaware State Parks. And it is true that people accepted to the curatorship program do not have to pay rent on the house. But being a resident curator is a bit more complicated than backing a moving truck to the front door.
Delaware’s Resident Curatorship and Resident Manager programs were founded as ways to save historic structures or rescue them from ruin. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, through the parks department, owns more than 200 historic structures on nearly 25,000 acres of park land across the state. That number doesn’t include buildings owned by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs as historically important. There simply is not enough money in the state budget to take care of them all.
Many of these structures were, or are, in states of disrepair. Having private citizens and not-for-profits take over their care is a way to save historic structures and the state money.
Under the curatorship agreement, the buildings are renovated to historic standards and, in return, the renovators are allowed to live in them for the rest of their lives rent- and tax-free. Under the management program, the managing organization may pay a little rent while the manager handles the day-to-day living and care of the building and grounds.
Hedy and Richard Stewart are resident curators of Buck Tavern at Lums Pond State Park in Bear.//Photo by Leslie Barbaro
In Delaware, there are six houses on the curatorship list: Buck Tavern, where the Stewarts live at Lums Pond State Park in Bear; The Wolfe House, run by the Sussex County Land Trust and the Delaware Division of Parks at Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes; the Cleaver House, at Port Penn; the Lums Mill House, also at Lums Pond State Park; the Sarah Brooks House, at Bellevue State Park in Wilmington; and the Warrington House at Trap Pond State Park in Laurel.
Only two of the buildings, Buck Tavern and The Wolfe House, have curators. There’s probably a good reason for that. Stewart’s response at seeing Buck Tavern for the first time would probably be echoed by most people walking into the other buildings.
Part of the floor has collapsed into the basement of Lums Mill House, says Hall. That project, like the others, are all big undertakings. It takes a special kind of person, with certain skills and resources, to take on such a venture, says Hall.
In the Stewarts’ case, Hedy is a quilter who made all the drapes and carpets for the house. Richard Stewart, Hedy’s husband, was a building contractor, and their daughter, Hattie, is a history buff. Though the tavern looked pretty dilapidated at first glance, Richard Stewart could tell it had a good foundation and structure.
As curators, their contract with the state included the work they planned to do on the house, how and when they planned to do it, and how much money they planned to invest. The curatorship program required a minimum $150,000 investment. The Stewarts also had to meet standards for keeping the house historical in their renovations. The windows, for example, retain their original wood panes and odd sizes.
Meeting those expectations wasn’t a problem. Though the Stewarts don’t like to talk about how much the renovation cost, it was well over the amount required—more than enough to build a really nice house from scratch, says Hedy. Plus, it took five years and a lot of research to complete the project. Their front door was custom built in Texas to replace the original door lost over the years. Dormers and the front porch were rebuilt, and the four fireplaces inside were repointed to working order.
“It took me one bucket of water for each step,” Hedy says of the scrubbing she did for days to clean the three stories of heart pine steps in the house. It took a whole year of her cleaning and a craftsman’s woodworking to rebuild the original hand-carved stairs, one of the prides of the finished house.
“It’s the most expensive part of the house,” says Hedy.
Rehabilitating The Wolfe House was much the same. Moved to its current location, the land trust had to rebuild the foundation before even considering other renovations. That was sometime around 2006. Then, because the building had no bathroom or kitchen, there was the decision on how to add them. The trust bought a composting toilet, thinking that would be the environmentally correct thing to do. However, deciding where to put the toilet took so long that the company that made it went out of business. Then snakes moved in. One electrician walked down the basement steps, saw snakeskins everywhere and immediately left, never to return, says Mark Churra, director of the land trust.
In all, a bathroom and kitchen were added to the house, the roof was replaced, modern siding was removed and replaced with cedar shakes, and the grounds were regraded to comply with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The bottom line: Twelve years since work began, the house still has no certificate of occupancy.
“Economies change, administrations change,” says Dennis Forney, a land trust board member who worked on the project from the beginning. He hopes this is the year The Wolfe House receives its certificate. “You just can’t be impatient.”
Hale-Byrnes House manager Kim Burdick (seated) and Donna Draper, president of the Delaware Society for the Preservation of Antiquities.//Photo by Leslie Barbaro
Every day is like a party with friends for Kim Burdick, resident manager of the Hale-Byrnes House. The house on White Clay Creek was the site of George Washington’s war council before the Battle of the Brandywine. It dates to 1750.
The house was saved from demolition for highway expansion in the 1960s by what became the Delaware Society for the Preservation of Antiquities. The group raised money, restored the house, then turned it over to the state. The society rents the house back from the state for a small sum. Burdick and her husband live there as the site managers. Board members stop by regularly to work on the house, decorate or simply visit, says Burdick.
Moving to the Hale-Byrnes House required getting rid of most of their things, says Burdick. There is no closet and storage space in the house. Still, for a historian like Burdick, who holds a master’s in American folk culture museum studies, it is her dream house and dream job. She holds regular history roundtable meetings and opens the house for visitors on the first Wednesday of the month April through December.
At Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford, people tour the mill, but the miller’s house next door is the director’s house. The mill and the grounds are owned by the state and leased to the Delaware Nature Society. Matt Babbitt, director of the mill site, says the house is a nice perk, even if he’s not allowed to paint the walls or make structural changes, though the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs has made repairs and upgrades such as air conditioning and insulation, says Lynn Riley, senior planner for the division.
The first director lost a toilet when it froze and cracked in the 1980s, so Babbitt says he is pretty happy with the renovations.
Matt Babbitt says living in the miller's house at Abbott's Mill is a nice perk.//Photo by Leslie Barbaro
So why do it?
Renovating a curatorship program house takes a lot of long, hard, expensive work. So why do it?
Hedy Stewart’s first answer is that she was insane, but then, waving her hands in the air, she says to look around.
“It’s gorgeous,” she says. “I love it here.”
In the summer she keeps a large garden. Her neighbors—park visitors—are nice. She gets to fill the house with antiques she finds at local shops. And her daughter will be able to live there the rest of her life. Hedy hopes her daughter, now 38, will someday take over the house and finish the third floor.
For Forney and the Sussex County Land Trust, the answer is location, location, location. At The Wolfe House, there is always a breeze in summer. The house sits on the edge of Cape Henlopen’s Junction & Breakwater Trail. And saving places like The Wolfe House is important, he adds. It was constructed during a time when houses were built with “strong bones.” It captures a place in time.
“It’s a sweet, sweet spot,” says Forney.
The state’s curatorship program is on a bit of a hiatus while regulations for the program are updated. Guidelines for returning houses to the care of the state are being devised. The state is also looking into ways the buildings could be taken over and renovated for possible commercial use—such as for a restaurant—while keeping the historic flavor and importance alive, says Hall.
Hall believes in the importance of the curatorship program, especially because there is no budget for historic preservation. “If we don’t do something, we will lose them,” he says of many historic structures. “If we can get private people to invest, that preserves the property.”
SO YOU THINK THE OLD PLACE IS FOR YOU?
Here are some things to consider if you are planning to be a resident curator or resident manager.
Living in a historic house seems romantic, but it’s not for everyone. Drafty walls, rattling windows, ever-increasing expenses and varmints—lots of varmints—are things to think about before taking on a major renovation through the state’s Resident Curatorship Program. It takes someone with resources and know-how, says program director Jim Hall, chief of cultural resources for Delaware State Parks.
He gets some interesting calls. One man contacted him from Hawaii to say that if Hall would send him money for a plane ticket and get his tools out of hock, he was ready to take on one of Delaware’s historic homes. Hall declined.
Sometimes the house has to be taken back from other residents first, such as the Stewarts’ bat, or the turkey vultures who have taken up residence in the Lums House next door.
Snakes are a problem too. Practically everyone working in this type of historic renovation has a snake story. Rob McKim, former and first director of Abbott’s Mill in Milford, lived in the miller’s house in the 1980s. He tells of snakes hanging from the phone on the wall and slithering in during a dinner party. His wife used to do a bat and snake check in the nursery every night before she put their baby daughter to bed.
At The Wolfe House, pieces of what was supposed to be a composting toilet turned out to be a favorite hiding place for snakes. At one point the floor in the basement fairly moved with them, says Mark Churra, director of the Sussex County Land Trust, which shares the curatorship with the state.
And sometimes, it’s just plain rustic. Kim Burdick, resident manager of the Hale-Byrnes House in Newark, got rid of almost all her furniture and a lot of her clothes when she and her husband moved into the house. Closets and storage were not part of the house’s 18th-century design.
Neither was insulation. McKim says he could feel the wind coming through the walls of the miller’s house. He once registered a temperature of 16 degrees in the living room. He and his wife would go to bed wearing ski hats and thermal underwear in the winter.
For the hearty or—as Hedy Stewart of Buck Tavern calls herself—crazy souls who take on the projects, there’s no place else they would rather be. In the end, they know they’ve taken part in preserving history.
“This place is unbelievable,” says Stewart. “I love it here.”