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Bascom Lodge in Adams, Mass., overlooking the Appalachian Mountains
Ryan Donnell

It’s easy to see why cash-strapped states are interested in offering curatorship programs. Delaware’s Hall says each property the state has identified for the program — all of which are located in parks — has a minimum of $150,000 worth of necessary repairs. But it’s often much more, because there’s typically neither the running water nor the electricity needed to begin the rehabilitation process. “You can’t plug in a drill or have a hose to wash things off,” he says. “I’m asking people to take on a house with none of those things in place and to spend the $20,000 to $50,000 needed just to start working on the property.” Kevin Allen, who heads up the historic-curatorship program in Massachusetts, says complaints that the state is wastefully handing out houses for free couldn’t be further from the truth. “For every dollar the state has invested in structures to keep them alive, it has gotten seven back,” says Allen, who notes that the state currently works with 17 curators and has 40 properties up for grabs. “If anyone is getting a deal, it’s Massachusetts.”

Not just anybody is given the opportunity to give away thousands of dollars and countless hours of labor and sweat. Indeed, Hall asks any prospective curator to demonstrate their income, provide three years of tax returns and show bank statements as part of a financial vetting. “We don’t want people to come in and get a project started, tear the walls down and take the roof off and then run out of money and come to me with a hard-luck story,” he says. “We want solid people who can see a project through.”

“The people who do these are resourceful, handy people.”
But it’s not just a matter of having a big-enough bank account. Those who are selected? to become curators have to demonstrate a few other skills as well. It helps, for instance, to know how to wield a hammer and a saw. “Some people decry this as a rich man’s game. It could also be called a resourceful man’s game,” Hall says. “The people who do these are resourceful, handy people. They like to putter around.”

In being granted stewardship of a historic home, curators are charged with resurrecting the buildings in a very specific manner. Not only does the state of Delaware require a work plan that sets out how everything will be completed in five years, curators must also follow guidelines set out by the federal Department of Interior for historic preservation. “The idea about the guidelines is to preserve as much of the fabric of the building as possible,” Hall says. “You can’t put in new windows to an 1840s farmhouse. We would ask you to use like for like — like design and like materials.”

This mandate to put historic preservation above all else has caused some resentment among curators, who chafe at not being allowed to use such innovations as the most efficient windows on the market. It has also sometimes resulted in conflict between state agencies. For instance, Briar Forsythe, whose family took possession of a sprawling mansion and grounds called the Willowdale Estate in Topsfield, Mass., says the state historical society has to approve many of the changes she wanted to make in her renovation plan. For the most part, although slow, that process has worked out, as she and her family resurrected and maintained the Delft tile, marble fireplaces and ornate carvings. But there have been times in the long process of rehabbing the house — which was owned by Bradley Palmer, a prominent Boston businessman who represented President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference — when even history had to take a backseat to modern-day safety codes. “In that case, Massachusetts historical will have to bend,” Forsythe says. “The codes don’t bend.”

There’s one other important quality historic curators have to have: good humor. Because the properties are located in parks, even the nonpublic residences are on publicly accessible land. “The public thinks the properties are bathrooms or museums and they’ll knock on their door,” Hall says. “It takes a special kind of person to deal with that.”