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Living Above The Past: Museum Opens Up To Tenants

Aug 19, 2012
Originally published on August 19, 2012 6:20 pm

All it takes to enter a time warp in New Hampshire is $15 and a summer afternoon. Spanning more than 250 years of American history, Strawbery Banke is the oldest neighborhood in the state's oldest city, Portsmouth.

It's kind of like Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg — lite. Stationed inside many of the 37 homes are re-enactors in different period garb. Inside a hulking white house, it's 1872.

Typically, Strawbery Banke's visitors have been of the school group and tour bus variety. But when the economy went downhill, museum staffers started thinking about drawing longer-term guests: actual contemporary tenants.

"It's fair to say that we have always struggled to find a financial model that sustains us adequately ... and we've never had an income stream that was consistent," says Rodney Rowland, Strawbery Banke's facilities director.

He says the historic houses' upper levels are usually storage space. So it made sense to turn these extra rooms into extra revenue: modern apartments and office spaces. All told, Rowland hopes this move will add $300,000 to the bottom line.

Inside a bright yellow colonial house, a couple of tourists wander through a quiet woodcarving exhibit. They stare intently at a carved eagle and various tools kept behind glass. What they don't know — until he tromps downstairs — is that 60-year-old Tom Richter lives upstairs.

With his easy grin, bare feet, cut-off khakis and baggy T-shirt, he looks kind of like he walked out of a Jimmy Buffet song.

At the top of the old wooden staircase sits an apartment that's not much bigger than a college dorm. To the right, there's a kitchenette and a small bathroom.

Richter's day job is working as a project manager for the city's public works department. On his time off, he's a musician. He's working on a set of folk songs about Portsmouth right now, and he moved to Strawbery Banke for inspiration.

As long as he can have his window air-conditioner — discreetly placed in a back window so tourists aren't likely to see — and room for his banjo, he's pretty much happy. But there was one requirement he followed up on quickly.

"There was a rule that said, 'No alcohol,' and my hand automatically reached for the phone," Richter says. "I called Rodney, and he clarified, 'No, you can have alcohol upstairs, you just can't maraud around the grounds while we're open.' So all is well."

Eva Boice lives next door to Richter over the woodcarving exhibit. Mysterious holes in floorboards and swatches of paint layers exposed on her door during renovation are all part of the charm.

"I feel that there was either the hand of God or fate in me being here, because this is a fantastically unique situation," she says.

Overall, Boice says Strawbery Banke has done a good job of preserving its living-history illusion downstairs while catering to its modern tenants' needs. But every now and then, something happens. Take the washer and dryer, which are carefully hidden behind a cupboard door downstairs, just off from the exhibit space.

"One of the kids stumbled into it one day, and I heard him say, 'Oh! They had these back then, too?' " she says.

Besides the occasional appliance sighting, the only other hint of present-day New Hampshire life over this exhibit might just be a few bars of Richter's music.

This story is part of the StateImpact New Hampshire project. StateImpact is a collaboration between NPR and member stations examining the effect of state policy on people's lives.

Copyright 2013 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.nhpr.org/.

Transcript

CHERYL CORLEY, HOST:

While farmers recognize the drought as a temporary crisis, museum directors realize rocky economic times may be here to stay for them. One New Hampshire museum is taking some permanent action by hanging for rent signs. Amanda Loder of New Hampshire Public Radio reports.

AMANDA LODER, BYLINE: All it takes to enter a time warp in New Hampshire is 15 bucks and a summer afternoon. Spanning more than 250 years of American history, Strawbery Banke is the oldest neighborhood in one of the state's oldest city, Portsmouth. It's kind of like Colonial Williamsburg light. Stationed inside many of these 37 homes are re-enactors in different period garb. Inside a hulking white house, it's 1872.

SARAH GOODWIN: Good afternoon. I am Sarah Goodwin. Welcome to my home. So you enjoyed the garden, did you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, it was great.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We did. Beautiful.

LODER: Typically, Strawbery Banke's visitors have been of the school group and tour bus variety. But when the economy went downhill, museum staffers started thinking about drawing longer-term guests.

RODNEY ROWLAND: And it's fair to say that we have always struggled to find a financial model that sustains us adequately, and we've never had an income stream that was consistent.

LODER: Rodney Rowland is Strawbery Banke's facilities director. As we walk the grounds, he explains that the historic houses' upper levels are usually storage space. So it made sense to turn these extra rooms into extra revenue - modern apartments and office spaces. All told, Rowland hopes this move will add $300,000 to the bottom line.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LODER: A couple of tourists inside a bright yellow federal-style house are wandering through a quiet woodcraft exhibit. They stare intently at a carved eagle and various tools kept behind glass. What they don't know, until he tromps downstairs to greet me, is that 60-year old Tom Richter lives upstairs.

TOM RICHTER: Hi. How you doing, Amanda? Nice to meet you.

LODER: Nice to meet you.

RICHTER: Come on up.

LODER: With his easy grin, bare feet, cutoff khakis and baggy T-shirt, he kind of looks like he walked out of a Jimmy Buffett song. The visitors shoot us curious looks as Richter shows me around.

RICHTER: As you can see, I live behind a theater rope.

LODER: At the top of the old wooden staircase sits an apartment that's not much bigger than a college dorm. To the right...

RICHTER: It's a kitchenette and a bathroomette, I guess.

(LAUGHTER)

LODER: Richter's day job is working as a project manager for the city's public works department. On his time off, he's a musician. He's working on a set of folk songs about Portsmouth right now, and he moved to Strawbery Banke for inspiration. As long as he can have his window air conditioner - discreetly placed in a back window so tourists aren't likely to see - and room for his banjo, he's pretty much happy. Although...

RICHTER: There was a rule that said no alcohol, and my hand automatically reached for the phone. I called Rodney, and he clarified. No, you can have alcohol upstairs. You just can't maraud around the grounds while we're open. So all is well.

LODER: Eva Boice lives next door to Tom over the woodcrafts exhibit. Mysterious holes in floorboards and swatches of paint layers revealed on her door during renovation are all part of the charm.

EVA BOICE: And I feel that there was either a hand of God or fate in me being here, because this is a fantastically unique situation.

LODER: Overall, she says Strawbery Banke has done a good job of preserving its living history illusion downstairs while catering to its modern tenants' needs. But every now and then, something happens. Take the washer and dryer, which are carefully hidden behind a cupboard door downstairs, just off from the exhibit space.

BOICE: And one of the kids stumbled into it one day, and I heard him say, oh. They had these back then too? And I just started to laugh so hard...

LODER: And besides the occasional appliance sighting, the only other hint of present-day New Hampshire life over this exhibit might just be...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LODER: ...a few bars of Tom Richter's music. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Loder.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.