When a state runs its landmarks on the cheap
April 2, 1992
A cash-strapped State of Illinois relies too much on volunteers to operate its historic sites, with predictable results.
Last fall Donald Hallmark, since 1981 the superintendent of the Dana-Thomas house in Springfield, briefly abandoned his post. He'd written a memorandum criticizing some 30 of the volunteers who conduct tours and run the gift shop at the restored Frank Lloyd Wright house. Some were hard to get along with, the memo reportedly complained, or not up to their duties, with the result that running the volunteers took more of his time than did running the house. The memo was obtained—let us not use an ugly word like "stolen"—from Hallmark's desk and circulated among the volunteers. Any of us would be embarrassed to have revealed what we think of our colleagues, and there was talk of a resignation.
Springfield (goes the local boast) is a volunteering sort of town. This is testament to the public-spirited generosity of its people, as well as the fact that there's isn't much else to do in Springfield. People volunteer because they're bored or lonely or because their therapist told them to develop an interest or because they can't figure out how to work the cable converter.
The state is especially dependent on volunteers to run its historic sites. The Springfield Junior League long ago adopted the Lincoln home as a project, out of sisterly solidarity with Mary Todd, their patron saint. Unpaid guides are also used at the Old State Capitol and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices.
The problem with running an operation with unpaid help is that you usually get what you pay for. (The worst thing about working with volunteers is that when they act as if they're doing you a favor by just showing up, they are.) Coordinating a volunteer force of more than 200 must be like trying to turn a herd of turkeys into a marching band. The job is not made easier by the fact that volunteers are drawn mostly from the ranks of surplus labor; managers in every state agency under the civil service system know how hard it is motivate people when they know they can't be fired. As a result, the single most frequent cause of medical claims filed by state historic site managers is persistent pains in the ass.
Really. You could look it up.
The state's dependence on the kindness of strangers raises the question whether the Dana-Thomas house is a luxury the state of Illinois can afford. I do not question the state's purchase of the house for a million dollars; that may have been the only sound fiscal decision Jim Thompson made in fourteen years. But having acquired something that tens of thousands of people want to see, the state cannot provide the staff needed to show it to them properly.
What was a problem became a crisis when Gov. Jim "James" Edgar announced budget-cutting staff reductions that required that the house be closed for the four months that will end July 1. The expected savings during the closing were so laughably small—$55,000—that it seems feasible to replace them by charging a modest admission fee.
Admission fees are common at other Wright house museums. The Wright Home and Studio up the road in Oak Park is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation but is run by a private not-for-profit foundation. Tours are guided by volunteer docents, with paid support staff and other operating expenses defrayed by an admission charge of $5 per adult during the peak tourist season. This makes the Wright house cheap thrills by Chicago area standards, and 74,000 people happily paid the tariff last year.
Of course, this is America, where people are accustomed to not paying their way, and attendance will certainly fall if even a modest entrance fee is imposed. Fortunately the revenue possibilities at that place are rich. For example, they might want to charge tourists to leave the building rather than enter it; I've had some docents so annoying I would have paid $10 to be allowed to leave the group early and head to Norb's.
Both Dana-Thomas and the Wright home already look to profits from the sale of house-related gimcrackery to bring in a few bucks on the side. Springfield's Sumac Book Shoppe has much to learn about squeezing the customer. On a day-after-Christmas tour in 1990, I found the tour staging area so cold that I took refuge in the adjoining shoppe, which was a little warmer because of the heat generated by friction as credit cards were pulled in and out of wallets. Dana-Thomas House golffe shirts and Dana-Thomas House refrigeratorre magnets were being flogged there, as well as the usual mugs and posters and prints and guidebooks and T-shirts of the sort you never see at LincolnFest; all bore the handsome sumac tree motif adopted by the Office of Historic Preservation as a logo. I would have shelled out $50 for a Dana-Thomas House space heaterre if one had been available, but this was one time that a retailer didn't see me coming.
They will get better at this sort of thing with time; how long did it take managers of movie houses and ball parks to realize how their drink sales would be boosted by oversalting the rest of the menu? But selling doodads in the gift shoppe is lemonade-stand stuff compared to the more substantial possibilities revealed in the Chicago Tribune of March 11. There readers were told of the impending sale at auction at the Leslie Hindman gallery of various donated fragments of a 1953 Wright house. The sale benefited the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, which plans to use the proceeds to maintain extant Wright houses including the home and studio in Oak Park. In a similar way, Wright's own Taliesin Foundation has been selling off drawings to finance its restoration work.
The Dana-Thomas house is crammed with Wright furniture and glass that would fetch up to half a mill a piece. Sell them off one by one, one piece per year, and the state could afford not only Mr. Hallmark's salary ("when you care enough to hire the very best") for the next fifty years but partial compensation for the docents in the form of free throat lozenges and support hose, which I think would be nice.
And don't give me that "precious patrimony" stuff. Selling off tomorrow to pay for today has been Illinois government's guiding principle since statehood. In that span it has exploited to the point of depletion—or countenanced the exploitation by others—of irreplaceable assets, from farm soil, coal, and clean water to its own children. Of course, that means that the grandkids will find a tour of the Dana-Thomas house in 2050 to be as barren of interest as a conversation with Alan Dixon, but to hell with them. This is America. Let them find their own damn virgin continent. ●