Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Future Uncertain for State Capital Museum

Above: The historic Lord Mansion, located in the South Capitol neighborhood in Olympia, has served as the State Capital Museum since 1942. Staff of the Washington State Historical Society informed the public on Monday that it cannot afford to keep the mansion as the state Capital Museum due to financial reasons. The mansion is currently closed to the public.

By Janine Gates

There is new uncertainty as to the future of the State Capital Museum at the historic Lord Mansion in Olympia.

At a public meeting at the mansion on Monday evening, Washington State Historical Society (WSHS) staff said that it cannot keep the mansion as a museum due to financial reasons. About 50 were in attendance, many of them from the South Capitol neighborhood association. 

The Lord Mansion, located in the historic South Capitol Neighborhood at 211 21st Street, seven blocks south of the Capitol Building, was built in 1923 for banker Clarence J. Lord and his wife, Elizabeth. The building was designed by Olympia architect Joseph Wohleb. 

Lord was a powerful figure in the history of Washington State banking, served as Olympia's mayor in 1902-03, and was a staunch opponent of any attempt to move the state capital. After Lord's death in 1937, the mansion was donated to the state by Elizabeth Lord, to be used as a museum. It opened as such in 1942, and was closed in 2014.

Jennifer Kilmer, director of the Washington State Historical Society, told the group that the Lord Mansion will continue to be renovated and a leasing tenant will be sought whose mission profile fits well with their occupancy of the historic structure. The mansion is owned by the Society.

Kilmer was hired after the 2008 recession, and the Society's budget had just been cut 44 percent. Ever since, the Society has struggled to keep the museum open, and the Governor's budget writers have told her not to ask for more money because she will not get it.

Despite obtaining past capital project funding to upgrade wiring and plumbing, replace the roof, and make repairs, the Society can no longer afford to operate the mansion.

In consultation with the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, renovations include repairing and repainting the interior and installation of new carpeting. The renovations are ongoing

Kilmer said it would take several million dollars to bring the building to certified climate control standards for the storage and display of historic documents, pictures, and artifacts. Renting the mansion out, she said, would be the worst option, because the wear and tear would be significant. 

The Coach House, located behind the State Museum, will continue to be available for public rental.

“We heard the biggest concerns were the impact to traffic in the neighborhood, continued care and preservation of the historic structure (and surrounding landscaping), and the perceived absence of a local history center that will be created by this decision,” Erich R. Ebel, Washington State Historical Society marketing and communications director, told Little Hollywood on Tuesday. 

“Basically, we want someone in there who appreciates and cares for the building and whose business fits well with the neighborhood. The meeting (on Monday night) was the beginning of this community conversation, not the end…there will be additional information and outreach in the future,” said Ebel.

The Washington State Historical Society will use funding from the building’s lease to fund programs and displays on the Capitol Campus, either in the Legislative Building itself or another building nearby, such as the Pritchard Building.

Asked about future tenants, Ebel said the Society is not yet ready to begin the search for a new tenant as renovations are currently underway. The building is currently occupied by an employee who oversees the structure and handles public rental of the Coach House.

A change to the relevant Revised Code of Washington, substituting “Historic Lord Mansion, for State Capital Museum, will be proposed for the next Legislative session to broaden the mansion's use beyond a museum. 

The Washington State Historical Society will continue to oversee maintenance of the structure and surrounding landscaping, including the native species garden named in honor of the late Delbert McBride, the museum's curator emeritus and an ethnobotanical expert of Cowlitz/Quinault descent. It features more than 30 species of native plants.

“The Washington State Historical Society takes its responsibility of being good stewards of state history very seriously,” said Ebel.

Above: As seen in May 2016, an inviting stone table and benches provide a place to rest and admire spectacular rhododendrons, native plants, and a pioneer herb garden at the historic Lord Mansion.

Editor’s Note, November 10: Clarifications made to this story, based on an email to Little Hollywood from Erich R. Ebel, Washington State Historical Society marketing and communications director: 

The meeting was in the mansion itself, not the Coach House. Also, the proposed legislation would change the name “State Capital Museum” to “Historic Lord Mansion.”

Also, Ebel comments: "There is a misconception that the mansion was donated explicitly for use as a museum. This is not the case. We’ve reviewed the transaction paperwork that was done at the time, and it only specifies that the mansion be used for the public good, possibly as a museum."

Little Hollywood appreciates the clarifications.