PEMcast 008.2: Building Stories

In the last episode of the PEMcast, we explored an historic downtown Salem that almost wasn’t when the wrecking ball of urban renewal loomed over our little city in the ’60s. Thanks to the national attention brought by Ada Louise Huxtable, an architecture critic at The New York Times, Salem was saved.

This summer, we’ve been producing a series to highlight our Historic House Crush campaign. We’re looking at historic buildings from different angles. And asking our listeners to share your architectural finds with #HistoricHouseCrush.

In this episode, we talk with people who are pushing the envelope — to use a building term — on presenting historic houses to the public. They’re changing the way these houses are run and the way we experience them.

Subscribe to the PEMcast on your favorite podcast app or stream the episode from the SoundCloud link above.

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Peeling walls at the Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side.
Photo by Dinah Cardin

We begin by taking you to the Antarctic, where experts are working to preserve an important piece of early 20th century history — a series of huts built by legendary explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. Bringing these huts to life for people to visit is an interesting task, when you consider the great story behind them. Researchers told BBC reporters that the huts were just as they were left more than 100 years ago with the photo of the King and Queen of England still on the wall.


Courtesy of the BBC.

But even if a building has a great story behind it, audience engagement can still be a huge challenge. So, we went up to Maine to talk with Joel LeFever, a former consultant to historic house museums who is now director of the Museums of Old York.

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Joel Lefever talking to PEMcast producer and co-host Chip Van Dyke at the Museums of Old York.
Photo by Whitney Van Dyke.

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Joel Lefever talking to PEMcast producer and co-host Chip Van Dyke at the Museums of Old York.
Photo by Whitney Van Dyke.


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Joel Lefever talking to PEMcast producer and co-host Chip Van Dyke at the Museums of Old York.
Photo by Whitney Van Dyke.

Joel talked about the importance of getting behind the emotional lives of the people who lived in a historic property.  He specifically called out the Tenement Museum in Lower Manhattan as an example of a place that does this well.

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Photo by Dinah Cardin

Coincidentally, we were already planning to feature the Tenement Museum in this episode. So, off to New York I went on assignment. I walked from the Meat Packing District, making my way toward the museum at 97 Orchard Street, noting the fantastic old buildings and the architectural evidence of people from all over the world living in the neighborhood.

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Photo by Dinah Cardin


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Photo by Dinah Cardin


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Photo by Dinah Cardin


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A tour guide handing out “old fashioned air conditioning” to those on the tour.
Photo by Dinah Cardin

It was a hot and humid summer day when Dave Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Tenement, shared the history of the museum with me as we sat in a room not currently on the tour, a soundtrack of traffic and street sounds playing through an open window. Next, Dave took me around to see where big families would share a mere 325 square feet of space. He also shared stories of the discoveries made all the time at the museum — receipts, letters and other valuable evidence of the lives of countless immigrants is still found in fireplaces, under floor boards and behind peeling wallpaper.

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Dave Falvalaro. Photo by Dinah Cardin


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Photo by Dinah Cardin

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Photo by Dinah Cardin

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Photo by Dinah Cardin

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Photo by Dinah Cardin

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Photo by Dinah Cardin


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Photo by Dinah Cardin

After the tour, I met up with Frank Vagnone on Orchard Street. As former director of the Historic House Trust of New York City, Frank has left his office in Central Park to travel the world to promote new ideas about historic houses with his firm Twisted Preservation. He’s even written a manifesto on the subject called The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. (We featured him on this blog earlier this year when he visited PEM’s Ropes Mansion.)

Dinah and Frank

Frank believes most visitors to historic homes never get a real sense of what it was like to live in that space — where people actually walked around in their bare feet, drank tea, went to the bathroom…and slept there. Which is why he started a series on his blog called One Night Stand, where he stays overnight in historic house museums, treating them like home and then reports back to the people who run them.

Frank, like everyone in this episode, has multiple historic house crushes! Go ahead, everybody, Instagram and Tweet #historichousecrush. If you’ve just taken a great photo of a historic place — maybe on PEM’s campus or somewhere else in the world — be sure to tag it with historichousecrush, so the historic house crusher community can enjoy it.  (Our accounts are here: Instagram, Twitter (@peabodyessex) and Facebook.)


The stairs of PEM’s Cotting-Smith Assembly House.Photo by Instagram user tosatwoheart

Thanks for listening. A big thanks to Joel at the Museums of Old York and Dave, Georgina, Annie and everyone else at the Tenement Museum, as well as Frank.

For more on the exciting Shackleton and Scott story, check out episode 38 of Lore, a terrific podcast from one town over — Danvers, MA. Host Aaron Mahnke uses the recent discovery of the Shackleton whiskey bottles to tee off the truly eerie true story of an un-explainable mystery in the tundra.

Listen to the PEMcast on iTunes, Soundcloud and pretty much anywhere you listen to podcasts. Producers for this episode are myself, Chip Van Dyke, Caryn Boehm and Whitney Van Dyke. Corbett Sparks is our audio engineer. Melissa Woods was script consultant. Tosa Two Heart was our production assistant.

In the next episode of our Historic House Crush series, we talk with some exceptional historic house crushers who have taken their love of historic homes to the next level. Stay tuned.

For more on what we’ve been up to this summer for #HistoricHouseCrush, read this post to learn how Tosa Two Heart, a participant in our Native American Fellow program, started crushing on historic houses after meeting a New Orleans architect, who also happens to be the father of one of our curators.

Music for this episode:
John Luc Heffernan “Discovery” [CC by NC 3.0]
David Szesztay “The Dance” [CC by NC 3.0]

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