Historic Neglect

Tourists spend millions visiting our centuries-old attractions, helping to create thousands of jobs. Preserving our heritage, in other words, makes not just cultural but economic sense. So why aren't we doing it better?

By Grace Talusan | Boston Magazine |
preserving boston historical sites

Illustration by C.J. Burton

I’m in Paul Revere’s upstairs chamber, contemplating his bed. He left it one morning in April 1775, and that night took his famous ride. On this tour of the Paul Revere House, in the North End, I also learn that he was married twice, and had eight children with each wife. It’s an intimate space to be in, so I’m surprised to see a small table at the foot of the bed, set for company. The guide, standing quietly by the wall, explains that it was common during Revere’s time to entertain guests in your bedroom.

We make a quick run through the house, 15 minutes tops, over the same 332-year-old floors that Revere and his family used to walk on. Then we head outside to the courtyard, to look at a 900-pound bell he cast. It’s late August, the end of the tourist season, and as I leave, the woman at the ticket booth tells me that the number of visitors has begun to slow. Today she’s counted only 50 people per hour. Only? During the height of summer, she says, they see 200 an hour. Perhaps it’s Revere’s fame, or the proximity to the fine cannoli, or the fact that admission costs just $3.50 (about the same as a ricotta-filled plain shell), but this is one of the most-visited sites on the Freedom Trail. Each year, some 250,000 people buy tickets, which helps to pay for staff salaries, utilities, and other operating costs, all of which total just under $1 million a year.

The Revere House covers its day-to-day expenses just fine. But we’re talking about downtown Boston’s oldest building here. According to the Paul Revere Memorial Association, the structure will need $500,000 in preservation work over the next few years, and the association also hopes to raise $4 million to buy the building next door to create a visitor’s center. Who’s going to pay for all of that?

It’s not clear. Unlike federally owned treasures such as the Bunker Hill Monument, the U.S.S. Constitution, and the Dorchester Heights Monument, the Revere House isn’t guaranteed any city, state, or federal funding. The same holds true for many of the other Freedom Trail sites, among them the Old State House and Old South Meeting House. These landmarks survive through a combination of earned income (admissions, membership fees); contributed income (donations from individuals, grants, and foundations); and endowment income. But add that all up, and it’s not enough to pay the bills, especially since the 2008 economic downturn, which decimated endowments. “There are limits to the amount of money that’s available,” says Nina Zannieri, the executive director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association.

In other eras, the state might have been willing to chip in. But given the current state of the economy, with children needing food and their parents needing work, convincing legislators to increase, or even maintain, funding for historical attractions and cultural institutions is—according to Anita Walker, the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council—“not pretty.”

This is horribly shortsighted. History is an integral part of Boston’s identity. Look on the cover of any travel guide to the city, and you’ll find an image of Old State, Old South, Faneuil Hall, or some other monument from our past. According to a 2002 study conducted by the Center for Urban Policy Research, at Rutgers University, “heritage travelers” spend an estimated $2.5 billion annually in Massachusetts—much of it, naturally, in Boston. All told, historical preservation and heritage tourism support something like 86,000 jobs in the state.

Without much government money available to them, our historical sites have to depend on the largesse of corporate and private donors. Surely the wealthy elite in this most civilized of cities can be counted on for support, right? Actually, yes. They’re shelling out money hand over fist—to the Museum of Fine Arts, at least. In the summer of 2010, the museum took in more than $33 million in gifts, including a $10 million corporate gift from Bank of America. That year it also completed an expansion and opened a new Art of the Americas Wing, supported by $504 million in fundraising. Today the MFA is one of the largest privately funded institutions in the country.

Just think about what a small fraction of that money could have done for our many other historical attractions. The problem is, nobody these days is interested in supporting the routine upkeep of sites that have been around for centuries. You get no public accolades for giving money to repair a heating system, repaint walls, or shore up a foundation. That stuff may be necessary, but it’s boring. Somebody else can do it.

What’s happening today, says Kirsten Alexander, a marketing consultant who has worked with local historical institutions such as the Boston Athenaeum and Historic New England, is that everybody’s on the lookout for “sexier ways of giving.” Everybody wants a very visible return on investment. As Alexander puts it, donors want to be able to say, “I paid for the new roof that got blown off in that hurricane.”

Even the city and the state are starting to think this way. Consider the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, dramatically (sexily) destroyed 11 years ago by a fire. The museum reopened this past June after a $28 million complete makeover. That’s real money—$18 million of which came as a loan from the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (an independent public authority of the state), and $3 million of which came as a grant from the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Three cheers for history, right? Actually, the owners of the museum, the Florida-based Historic Tours of America, go to great lengths to make clear that this is not just another sleepy Boston historical attraction. Who would want to visit (or fund) one of those? “We’re an entirely new kind of museum,” the museum announces on its website, “where you’ll not only view artifacts of historical importance, you’ll also have an all-encompassing, multi-sensory experience…. Live actors, high-tech, interactive exhibits, authentically restored tea ships and the stirring, multi-sensory documentary Let It Begin Here, are just a taste of what you’ll see, hear and feel.” Tickets cost $25.

It’s always December 16, 1773, at the museum. Located on the Congress Street Bridge, it’s just a stone’s throw from the actual site where, on that famous evening, rebellious colonists dumped 342 chests of British tea into the harbor. Visit and you’ll find ticket-takers dressed in costume and speaking in Colonial accents. In a small replica of an 18th-century meetinghouse, you’ll gather to hear grievances against the British, shout “Huzzah” on cue during a reenactment of the meeting that took place at the Old South Meeting House (less than a mile away), and then, as the website says, “you’ll be given your own ‘Mohawk’ disguise before the march to Griffin’s Wharf begins.”

During that march, you’ll board replicas of either the Eleanor or the Dartmouth, two of the three vessels from which the colonists dumped all of that tea. That’s an event you’ll get to reenact in your Mohawk disguise—which, when I visited, in August, consisted of a single feather. Other attractions abound. There’s that Let It Begin Here documentary, which does its high-volume best to make you feel like you’re standing on the battlefield during the American Revolution. There are also holograms, and portraits on the wall of Sam Adams and King George, who come to life and argue with each other, just as characters do during the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios.

As it happens, the museum’s executive director, Shawn Ford, got the idea for his talking portraits from that Harry Potter exhibit. When I asked him whether he’s really presenting history at the museum, he was firm in his response. “We’re not an historic attraction, nor do we pretend to be,” he told me. “We tell the Tea Party event in a very fun, entertaining, educational way. Our museum is not a museum of artifacts, textbooks, or panels. We are a museum of experience.”

This is a common refrain today. “There’s a tension between education and entertainment,” says J. L. Bell, of the blog Boston 1775. Compared with the experience offered by the new Tea Party museum, Bell says, the real Old South Meeting House just isn’t “as exciting.”

There’s something to that point, even if purists don’t like to admit it. It’s easy, after all, to mock or dismiss an attraction like the Tea Party museum (the Herald waved it away as “cheesy,” and the New York Times pointedly questioned its devotion to historical authenticity). But the fact is, people appear to like it. “We’re doing very well,” Ford told me. Not only that, the museum seems to be driving traffic to many of the city’s authentic historical sites. Ford, for example, encourages visitors to his museum to follow up with a tour of the Freedom Trail, so that they can get a firsthand look at “the real places that still exist.”

That’s what I did. Fresh from my visit to the Tea Party museum’s replica of an 18th-century meetinghouse, I wandered over to the Old South Meeting House. Immediately, I was struck by how different the original is from the replica. Old South is an immense space, which explains why it was where as many as 5,000 of our early inhabitants met to protest British rule (at a time when the city’s population was only 15,000). Robin DeBlosi, the director of marketing and events for the original Old South, says the creators of the Tea Party museum designed their replica to differ significantly from Old South so that visitors to the former will feel an urge to go visit the latter—so that, as DeBlosi puts it, after being drawn in by the reproduction “they can experience what it’s like to be in the place where history happened, to stand in the same hall where Sam Adams gave his signal that led to the Boston Tea Party.”

The strategy seems to be working. “We had a really good July,” says Emily Curran, the executive director of Old South, “and we think that may have been one of the contributing factors.”

 

There’s always a balance to be struck between modernizing a city and preserving its past. And, to be fair, Boston hasn’t always managed that challenge well. The houses that Sam Adams and John Hancock lived in were both razed in the 1800s. Old South was on the verge of being torn down in 1876, until such local celebrities as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, Wendell Phillips, and Louisa May Alcott banded together to save it. Around the same time, the Old State House looked like it might be sold and transported to Chicago, until the creation in 1881 of the Bostonian Society, which successfully dedicated itself to keeping the building here.

These were savvy moves. Today Old State and Old South, along with the Paul Revere House, the Old North Church, and a number of other Freedom Trail sites, have become some of the city’s most important attractions. And if you compare Boston with, say, New York, you’ll notice a stark contrast: In New York, almost no vestiges survive of the city’s 18th-century past. “In order for a city to remain economically viable,” says Benjamin Carp, the author of two books on the American Revolutionary era, and a professor of history at Tufts University, “it may not be possible for it to preserve all of its historic spaces. But at the same time, if they don’t do some of that work, the public loses out.”

Carp was talking about culture and a sense of the past, of course. But we stand to lose out economically, too, if we don’t work hard to support our historical sites. More than 20 million international and domestic visitors came to the Boston area last year, and 9.9 million of them visited major museums and attractions in Boston and Cambridge. According to the U.S. Travel Association, these heritage travelers spend more money than average visitors. They come here for the history, in other words, and in doing so give our economy a huge boost. We need to keep them coming.

All of which raises an obvious question. If this city’s historical sites are so important to both our cultural and fiscal health, then why on earth aren’t we investing seriously in them?

 

That’s what I asked myself one day this past September, when I joined a crowd of 30 or so people that had gathered at the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, in the North End. We’d come to watch the Freedom Trail Foundation donate money from its Preservation Fund, for the second year in a row, to some Freedom Trail attractions. Mayor Menino was there, as were Freedom Trail guides dressed in Colonial costume and a number of Park Service rangers wearing earth-tone uniforms and straw hats. A light drizzle was falling as the ceremony began, and we all seemed to be wondering if we were going to get out of there before real rain came.

We’d assembled to see two giant cardboard checks change hands. One, for $25,000, was going to the city, to help with upkeep at the burial grounds. The other, for $75,000, was going directly to the Old North Church.

Addressing the crowd, Menino said a lot of cities “want to tear everything down and build anew, but we don’t do that here. We try to preserve the best we can.” With a smirk, he asked whether the giant checks had been signed, and everyone laughed. Reverend Stephen Ayres of the Old North Church then spoke about how the church’s 300th anniversary was on the horizon, and about how he now had the funds to paint the steeple in which Paul Revere hung his famous lanterns.

This was heartening to hear, but as I learned more about the Freedom Trail Foundation, I realized the size of the challenge that confronts all of us in this city even as we try to preserve just the historical sites that are on the Freedom Trail.

The Freedom Trail Foundation is a nonprofit established in 1964 to preserve the trail. There are widespread misperceptions about the organization’s relationship to the red line on the sidewalk. The foundation markets the Freedom Trail and conducts its own paid tours along it (they cost $13), but it plays no role as a formal overseer. Nobody does. Some sites are city-owned, while others are independently operated and have their own boards and budgets—and all of them, like the Paul Revere House, need far more money than their income from ticket sales, donations, and endowments can provide.

The Freedom Trail Foundation tries to help. It does so through its Preservation Fund grants, paid for almost entirely by people who are willing to donate an extra dollar for its walking tour. About 90,000 people do so annually, which means that in any given year the foundation has, roughly speaking, about $100,000 it can disburse—hence those two cardboard checks. Everything helps, of course, but that certainly can’t fund the kinds of ambitious, forward-looking maintenance and restoration efforts that are necessary to preserve this city’s historical legacy well into the future.

Here’s what’s crazy. Right now, the best way to raise money for a historical site in Boston is to wait for disaster to strike. Think of the fire at the Tea Party museum, and the effort in its aftermath to pour millions into rebuilding the place. Or think of what happened at the Old State House in 2005. After Hurricane Wilma caused extensive flooding, the Bostonian Society decided the building should be made permanently flood-proof—and within six months managed to raise $2 million, more than the place’s entire annual operating budget. There was also that moment at the Granary Burying Ground, in 2009, when a woman visiting the site fell through the earth and into a stairway leading to a crypt. Two years later, the city embarked on a $300,000 renovation. (A spokesperson for the city’s Historic Burying Grounds Initiative insists this wasn’t directly related to the woman’s fall, but the sequence of events certainly seems suggestive.)

Does it really have to be this way? Times are hard, of course. But given how important Boston’s historical identity is to its economic well-being, it’s now more important than ever to invest in preserving our signature historical sites. All of the millions that are pouring into venues like the MFA and the Tea Party museum show that there’s plenty of money and lots of goodwill out there—on the part of government entities, corporations, nonprofits, family foundations, and individual donors. So now we just have to get our priorities straight, and let our past lead us into the future.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/10/preserving-boston-historical-sites/