Barrett House seeing tour and program cuts

NEW IPSWICH – The first victims of a slumping economy are cultural activities, particularly those that are dependent on donations, gifts and endowments. Among those victims is Historic New England, owner of the Barrett House, and the result is fewer tours and programs this summer.

“The last few years have been very difficult for museums, so many closures, so many layoffs, so many challenges financially,” Carl R. Nold told a gathering at Barrett House on Wednesday. Nold is the new president and CEO of Historic New England, formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and owner of the Barrett House for the past 50 years.

The Barrett House will be open for public tours this summer only on the first Saturday of each month though October. The grounds and gardens, which are maintained by volunteers, will be open as usual during daylight hours. The annual Garden Day will be held Sunday, Aug. 15, from 1-3:30 p.m.

The apartment on the property is again occupied, and the residents will conduct the scheduled tours.

The three-story Federal-style mansion at 79 Main St. was built around 1800 and has been carefully preserved.

The New Ipswich Historical Society will use the property for its meetings and programs this summer while its building is repaired: A large tree fell onto the roof last fall. Programs being planned include several speakers, an exhibition by the New Ipswich Artists League, possibly in conjunction with Garden Day, and an antique fire brigade show on Labor Day weekend.

“Tourists stopped traveling after Sept. 11,” Nold said. “The stock market has affected our donors. And there are increased costs of security.”

Last year, he added, the society cut $1 million from its budget and reduced staff by 16 people. The society is largely funded by endowments which saw a 14 percent drop over three years.

Historic New England owns 35 sites in five states, he said.

Nold comes well qualified to his new position. He has previously worked at or directed museums in Cooperstown, N.Y., Alexandria, Va., the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, and spent 12 years at Mackinac Island in Michigan before moving to the Boston area last year.

Nold said changing times have caused the society to take a new look at its vision statement.

“We need to be a more public institution, he said. “Attendance was declining. We need to make things more approachable, add more value to the towns (where we own property).”

He stressed four points: educational programs for schools and adults; providing a model for preservation by keeping historic homes in private ownership while holding easements and developing a stewardship program; improving quality of life by providing lectures and exhibits; and economics.

“Our houses are destinations,” he said, “and contribute to property values by keeping open space in the middle of towns.”

But they need to be more than just museums. Suggestions from the audience included art shows, lectures, and seminars on historic preservation.

The society, which has existed for 94 years, changed its name this spring to make it easier, “and it says who we are,” Nold said.

“We are assessing all of our sites to see which will generate the most revenue. Those that draw fewer people will be open less,” he said.

“We are looking for new ways to open this house. We are open to ideas. Our goal is to find new uses. There are probably too many house museums in the area.”

Among the new programs to be offered by Historic New England are two new membership categories: gardening and landscapes for those interested in garden preservation, to be available this summer, and one for historic home owners providing special services for them, to be offered later this year.

The Historic Tour Program will “focus on one aspect (of a property) with an expert guide, such as wallpapers or furniture. It will be quite expensive,” he added.

A base membership in Historic New England is $35.

For information, go to www.historicnewengland.org. or call 1-617-227-3957.