Innovation and Historic House Museums: The All American House at Woodlawn Plantation

Posted on: May 1st, 2013 by Preservation Leadership Forum Staff

 

The parlor of Woodlawn Plantation prior to the All American House project. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

The parlor of Woodlawn Plantation as it appeared before the All American House project. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

The winning design by UNCG students of the Woodlawn Parlor| Credit: David Wilson

The winning design by UNCG students of the Woodlawn parlor.| Credit: David Wilson

 

Take a close look at the two photos on this page. Same room, same historic house museum. In the second photo, however, the velvet ropes have disappeared, and attractive contemporary furniture blends seamlessly with the freshly painted interior of the historic setting. But if your hackles start to rise at the mere thought of 21st-century furnishings and artwork in a house museum that tells the story of a 19th-century home, calm down. Much like any experiment, this was done under carefully controlled “laboratory” conditions. And the experiment--think of it as a decorator show house for house museums--has been a great success in attracting new visitors and making an old house new again.

Two years ago, Woodlawn Plantation, a National Trust Historic Site, began an innovative partnership with MADE: In America, a nonprofit whose goal is to foster American enterprise. While MADE: In America has created show houses before, this is the first time it has used an actual historic house museum. Teams of students were charged with creating a home for a modern family in the historic rooms at Woodlawn, mingling antiques from the collection with new furniture designed and manufactured in the United States. Critical to their success was the way in which their designs referenced the many layers of history embodied at Woodlawn over the last 210 years.

View from the music room looking into the family parlor. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

View from the music room looking into the family parlor. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

During their work, the students learned how to interact with a client (Woodlawn) and different U.S. furniture manufacturers. Students had to follow very specific parameters: some pieces from the collection could not be moved, and Woodlawn had to approve the paint colors and flooring materials.

Woodlawn staff handled moving and arranging the collection pieces and house cleaning. They also managed the installation, with the overarching philosophy that all interventions had to be reversible, non-damaging, and that the selected paint colors would be appropriate to stay on the walls for many years. A preservation contractor was on site during the two-day installation period to attach items to walls, floors, and ceilings, since the walls and ceilings are plaster-on-lath or masonry and are susceptible to vibrations.

Working in a historic setting required some creative approaches to the redecoration. To avoid damage to the masonry walls, for example, the new wallpaper in the map room was attached to a thin wooden strip where the wall meets the ceiling. The thin wooden strip, about the thickness of a yardstick, was tacked to the wall. The paper hangs from it, but is attached to the wall with adhesive in strategic points.

The culmination of this student design competition involved turning Woodlawn into a show house where history meets modern in a very tangible way. The newly decorated Woodlawn, which opened to the public on April 20, has received positive reviews from local media. The exhibits embrace new ideas, introduce the site to different audiences, and allow visitors a more free interaction with the living spaces. All while also staying true to the historic fabric and use of the original structure and spaces.

Students from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG), George Washington University, and the Corcoran College of Art + Design participated. They were quite enthusiastic about their work. Hear what students (Lauren Postlmayr, Nicole Ware,  Alyssa Hankus) from the UNCG had to say about the project:

A look at Woodlawn Taken from the family parlor, looking through the center passage into the music room. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

A look at Woodlawn taken from the family parlor, looking through the center passage into the music room. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Kelly Schindler, member services assistant at the National Trust, visited Woodlawn on the exhibit’s opening day. She commented that her preservation fears were eased when she found out that the original furniture had been integrated into each team’s design and that the paint colors had been approved by Woodlawn and National Trust staff.

The students’ designs were strongly influenced by the architectural characteristics of the house. The border in the parlor is based on the motif on the central staircase, for example. Schindler says: “I found myself examining the staircase motif and wondered if I would have noticed this detail on an earlier visit. Would I have examined that Hepplewhite bench so closely if it wasn’t surrounded by modern pieces? The truth is, maybe not.”

Engaging New Audiences

Over the past decade or so, historic house museums have sought new ways to engage the public. Woodlawn’s collaboration with MADE: In America offers a fresh and exciting approach to attracting new audiences and making the site relevant to 21st-century visitors. By looking at the entire lifespan of the house, this exhibit emphasizes the design elements that resonate no matter the period. Visitors are reminded that homes evolve with time, and that we can draw links with how people lived then and how they live now.

Today’s house museums are also seeking solutions that break down the barriers to interaction and interactivity. Ashley Wilson, AIA,  Graham Gund Architect for the National Trust says:  “In the 21st century visitors have no boundaries to information thanks to the Internet, but often find themselves restricted from fully interacting with the past due to age-old standards that place an invisible wall between the visitor and the artifact. While creating a show house is not standard, experimenting with new ideas allows stewards to adapt their visions and plans to keep these homes functional and alive in the years to come.”

Three mirrors in the center passage of Woodlawn. The mirror on the right is by Keith Fritz, while the center one and the one on the left are part of the Woodlawn collection. | Credit:National Trust for Historic Preservation

Three mirrors in the center passage of Woodlawn. The mirror on the right is by Keith Fritz, while the center one and the one on the left (partially hidden behind the vase) are part of the Woodlawn collection. | Credit:National Trust for Historic Preservation

Susan Hellman, acting director for Woodlawn Plantation, says, “When James DeLorbe [chief executive officer of MADE: In America] and I started planning this event two years ago, we had very high hopes and expectations. I was thrilled when the end result exceeded our expectations. The students did a fantastic job, and it was a pleasure working with them and their teachers over the course of the school year. Woodlawn is a beautiful mansion, and seeing it transformed for 21st-century life, with great appreciation for its history, architecture, and collections, is a joy”

“Innovation, experimentation, collaboration, and a broad sharing of the resulting information are essential to achieving historic site sustainability on a broad scale.”  This recommendation, which came out of a seminar on the future of historic house museums (covered in the Spring 2008 issue of Forum Journal  “America’s Historic Sites at a Crossroads") is at the very core of the Woodlawn project. This competition and  the resulting show house dramatically affects the way visitors encounter and engage with the historic property.  This particular approach may not work for every historic house; however, by experimenting with a new format and collaborating with new partners, Woodlawn Plantation has created an innovative experience that makes connections between the past and the present.

 The show runs April 20-June 16 and is closed on Tuesdays. The house is open 10-4.  Admissions is $20 but various discounts are accepted.