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Jane Nylander Interview

"It is much more than just buildings. Architecture frames our lives and all of the life that goes on within it...but I would say that it is not just the buildings that we should be involved in. To me preservation really has to involve the entire cultural landscape and the natural landscape ..."
Jane Nylander

As a curator and museum director, Historic New England President Emerita Jane Nylander has been active in historic preservation in New England since the 1960s. Nylander held positions at institutions such as Old Sturbridge Village and the Strawbery Banke Museum, and was president of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) for ten years. In this interview with Historic New England's Ken Turino on December 19, 2010, she discussed changes in the historic preservation movement over the course of her career.

Q: You have been involved with preservation your whole career. Could you tell how you first got involved with preservation in the broadest sense?

JN: In every case it has been a byproduct of a museum curatorial position. I came to a community starting in York, Pennsylvania, but then very quickly to Concord, New Hampshire, where of course there was a historic preservation emergency which needed attention. In those days, in the 1960s, there was no organization to deal with it other than the historical society. So in Concord for example within the first few weeks I was confronted with the threat to demolition of a 1790s building at the primary entrance to the city, threatened by IBM to replace the building with a “modern” [makes hand quotes] office building and a building that had been much beloved as a tavern and then in the 1920s a tea room, the Rumford Tea Room, what else, in Concord, New Hampshire. We lost it, I would say, because there was no organized structure in the community, no procedures for demolition delay or any of the tools we have for preservation now. The irony is that today the IBM building has been through three or four owners, most recently New Hampshire Public Radio and now the State Employees Union, and it is endlessly for rent or lease.

Q: You were talking about that story in the 1960s, which was that loss of the tavern. In your career there have been a lot of changes in how we perceive historic preservation. Could you elaborate on how the preservation movement has changed over time?

JN: Well, I will try. There have been others who have been far more actively involved in it from an administrative level than I have. But happily, historic preservation has developed into a profession and into a political movement, if you will. There have been established laws and regulations, historic preservation districts, and commissions that have legislative authority and governing authority and regulatory authority over the way things like this are addressed. It is a profession and there are people now who specialize in advocacy and in developing these tools. There are academic programs to prepare historians and new people to the profession to have the tools and the background to use these things effectively. There also is of course a much broader grass roots support for historic preservation that has been effectively organized and mobilized in many places including New Hampshire. There are groups ready to apply political pressure and lobby where necessary and step up with contributions of time, skill, and cash when necessary. In the beginning days earlier in this century the general thought was that the way to preserve a building was to own it and that of course gave rise to the establishment of an enormous number of historic house museums. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. The development of adaptive use techniques and understanding ways to repurpose these buildings for twentieth-century, twenty-first-century use has greatly broadened the potential success of the preservation movement and is really significant for how it will go forward.

Q: I think there is still a struggle out there in that a lot of people just think that the only way to preserve a house is to make it a museum.

JN: I think that is absolutely true. During the ten years I was director of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) in Boston, I don’t think a week went by that I did not have at least one if not five calls from people saying, "I want you to have my house." I would always ask why and try to lead them through a thought process to identify why the house was significant, why it should be of public benefit, how we would take it as a museum, what it would say, what its purpose would be. It often was that the house was a place they loved. It had no historic context that in itself made it significant. It was an important part of the architectural fabric of the community and of their own personal lives. It was usually possible to lead people to realize that there were other solutions that would protect and preserve the house and that it did not have to become a museum, but that idea is still widespread as you suggest and as I certainly experienced it as I defended our institution from these endless calls.

Q: Could you make any comment about the importance of our Stewardship Program at Historic New England?

JN: I think it was really trend-setting when the Stewardship Program was established at SPNEA because it finally established a mechanism by which historic property could have important architectural features preserved and yet enter the private sector. It remained on the tax rolls and it could be used for any number of active, current uses that were not museum-natured at all. The program identified very carefully and documented the condition of significant architectural elements, including exterior and interior architectural detail, fireplaces, mantles, trim, decorative painting, floor boards. We did not put preservation restrictions on areas we knew owners would want to use for kitchens or bathrooms because we knew they would want flexibility in adapting those to modern use, but we did restrict and have control over additions or alterations to the building. We set up a program whereby an architectural historian will visit annually at least to discuss upcoming maintenance needs and help the owners prepare for things that needed to be done so that the buildings could be kept in good repair and remain viable long into the future. In order to put a house in this program, an owner needed to deed those restrictions to SPNEA and to contribute to an endowment fund which would support the staff that would visit the house periodically and make the inspections. It would establish a legal defense fund whereby the organization could litigate if necessary if an owner went ahead and did something that was against the spirit or the actual nature of the restrictions. That has been one of the successes of the program because there are any number of organizations in the country that have taken a small number of restrictions without the endowment to support that staff member and without the legal defense fund to enforce the restrictions and they have therefore had no teeth in them. SPNEA’s program has grown now to over seventy-five, maybe more than eighty-five at this point, buildings, not all houses, and therefore the funds to support the program have grown as the endowment fund has grown and it has given it a great strength. It has a dedicated staff that takes care of those buildings and makes sure the restrictions are enforced and of course brings more houses into the program.

Q: When did you come to Strawbery Banke?

JN: I came to Strawbery Banke in 1986 having been a curator at Old Sturbridge Village. I came here to be director of the museum. I can remember driving around the property with my husband on Thanksgiving Day, maybe the day before Thanksgiving, in a cold rain storm thinking, "Why would anybody want to be director of a place that looked that bad?" Strawbery Banke at that time still had many many many unrestored buildings and had not done anything with exterior maintenance for years. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized what an exciting opportunity there was to do something new and different with a community of buildings, not simply restore them all to one date but to try to show visitors of all kinds the way in which architecture has framed lives over many many different years. So I came here with that in mind and we began quickly to restore and furnish as museum house exhibits a number of the buildings, making the story of the entire chronology of this place vivid to visitors in a way that it had never been and that was brand new in the museum field at that point. We started off by doing a 1954 submarine worker's apartment, which attracted incredible attention and still is popular with visitors whose primary lines to their children are either “we used to have one of those” or “we still have one of those." But for me, what it does is cut through the museum-ness of the place and help people realize that history is about them. It is not just about great important people. It is not all about George Washington visiting Pitt Tavern and reading the Declaration of Independence from the old State House balcony which no longer exists, but it is about ordinary people. It is about all of us. So, we worked with the submarine worker's apartment, which we did with the best standards of curatorial research. The research was based on interviews and research into the actual family that had lived in that particular space. We then moved on through other buildings here at Strawbery Banke and did the William Pitt Tavern to a 1770s inventory. We did the apartment, the residential apartment and grocery store of Bertha Abbott, and set that as it might have been right during the middle of World War II. Ultimately, a Victory Garden and garage exhibition were added to that. Then we went on and took another 1790s house and restored that as it had been lived in by a first-generation Jewish immigrant family from Russia and that was revolutionary in this field at that particular time. We went on to do several other exhibitions as well. Some of them were traditional; established cooking demonstrations in a nineteenth-century wheelwright house and things of that sort. I think the exciting and different part of it was the twentieth-century exhibitions which were, when we first did them in the late 1980s, pretty unusual.

Q: Right, and still tremendously popular with the public today. Was there one that was more satisfying than the others for you?

JN: For me the first one was the most satisfying because that was the one I was most involved in. Once we had done one we were able to hire additional staff and they were able to be more closely involved with the exhibition. But the submarine one I was most closely involved with and that of course involves everything from collecting memories to collecting objects, and as an old-time curator I love that kind of stuff.

Jane Nylander Interview