Will Mark Twain Lose the Same House Twice?

My favorite kind of museum is the one where the deeds being celebrated were actually committed on that site — the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, for instance, or the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

I also love visiting the old homes of interesting people, like Washington Irving. There’s nothing like being able to literally walk in the footsteps of someone else from long ago — seeing where they worked, slept, ate, and maybe cheated at cards.

One of the best such places I’ve ever visited is the sprawling and eclectic house in Hartford, Conn., that was built by and lived in for many years by Mark Twain. He wrote many of his best books there, and carried on a vibrant and varied life. I first visited because a silver thief I was writing about, Blane Nordahl, had unsuccessfully tried to remove Twain’s silver from the house. The place was so interesting that I went back later just for fun; it was nice just to hang out in the third-floor study where Twain wrote.

Unfortunately, the house is now in danger of being shut down due to lack of funds. This is a particularly sad twist since Twain himself lost possession of the house because of a downturn in his finances — even though Twain fully understood that writing is a business like any other.

I do hope the Twain house can be saved. I went to its website this morning and made a small donation, although I almost changed my mind at the last minute, envisioning the acres and acres of junk mail that inevitably follow whenever you submit your name to a new mailing list. I guess that means I like Twain even more than I hate junk mail.


RubyTues

The Robert Frost story made me angry. Just think all this time we've been building jails for criminals and all we needed was a poetry class.

Kaszeta

Interesting link about Blane Nordahl. I remember the name from when he was caught stealing silver from two places in Rhinebeck, NY. Didn't know he had a much more colorful history than just the Rhinebeck thefts.

Lain

Frank, in many areas of the United States you'll find Community Foundations which will probably do the trick for you.

I have no idea about the management of the museum, but the Mark Twain House is too valuable to simply be "made an example of." I can only hope that this financial trouble will spark greatness from the staff and board -- it'd be a tragedy for the museum to close and the house just sit, or worse.

LLP

You have better see them before they get vandalized like the Robert Frost house.

http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5hXiq_7H7gDoagzEPHrtTdLNRkEDAD9124ORG0

I think these vandals got off easy with just lectures.

jonathan

The Twain House is a national treasure and directly reflects the humanity of this man who would tell stories to his children in the parlor every night. The upstairs space devoted to his daughters and their education most literally represent a father's love. He was a great writer and a real human being.

They overspent on grandiose dreams, perhaps not understanding how much Hartford today is a backwater and how little they could do to change that. That huge visitors' center is twice the size it should be and the museum is an extravagance.

It is sad that Hartford, which retains great wealth, can't step up and take care of a few million dollars to preserve one of the most important sites in America. Shame on Hartford.

Just to note: Harriet Beecher Stowe lived next door. Her house is also a museum.

Charlie

A tip when submitting your name and e-mail to a place where you know it will be sold, misspell it. You will still receive junk mail, but you will at least know which company sold your name. Just make sure you keep a list of which names you created and where you submitted them.

Frank Fujita

Is there a business that will make donations to the organizations that you want, while keeping your identity a secret from them?

DJH

I'm a CT native who's been to the Twain & Stowe houses many times and loves them.

What I find amusing is that some of the Twain museum directors are blaming their woes on CT's "do-nothing" budget. Unfortunately for them, it's immature and irrational to blame the state government -- in 2008 -- for a monumentally-bad decision the directors made in 2003. This is just another of the heap of largely-fictional horrors that are being piled onto the government's decision not to escalate the latter half of the state's biennial budget (which ALREADY provides for INCREASES in funding for EVERYTHING, this fiscal year, contrary to what most municipalities and agencies on the state dole are claiming).

This is a very typical Connecticut maneuver. Find one of the few positive aspects of this otherwise-miserable state, mismanage it into the ground, whine and cry that help (aka "money," of course!) is needed in order to save one of the state's few treasures, then sit back and bathe in massive waves of taxpayer money and/or private-sector largesse which will magically make the mismanagement and stupidity go away.

The fact is that CT would have had many more such treasures, had things been properly managed in the first place. Unfortunately, all too often this sort of blatant incompetence and wastefulness is rewarded by just such a last-minute bailout. (And sometimes, the mismanagers find ways to profiteer on the bailouts, e.g. when then-Gov. Weicker gave the Whalers a massive infusion of cash only to have them exit for the greener pastures of the Carolinas anyway.)

Although I hate to lose the Twain house, I almost wonder if more long-range good would ensue from it failing. Maybe with this lesson in mind, the next bunch of incompetents who decides to run something else into the ground, expecting that they'll get rescued despite their own lousy decision-making, will think twice, and decide -- perhaps, just perhaps! -- that it's better to manage things properly, from the start, and not run that risk.

Then again, this is Corrupticut -- er, Connecticut -- so I assume not even those sorts of lessons will help. Nutmeggers have, to date, been unwilling to see that they're being fleeced by scams of this kind, or else they just don't care that they are (which in a way is much worse).

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Sam

I think charitable organization would do better to ask for a large donation once a year with the promise of no mail requesting more money for the next 364 days. I would gladly give more or set up auto-pay for smaller more regular donations if they would promise not to send me mail.

Rippon

Use fake contact info. They'll still take the donation.

tina

Maybe it is a family affliction; Twain's uncle's house in St. Louis is in danger of destruction through neglect by a local speculator:
http://ecoabsence.blogspot.com/search/label/clemens%20house
http://www.eco-absence.org/stl/clemens/

Dudley

This is yet another case of a non-profit with a serious edifice complex. (Another is the Old State House across town from the Twain, also in dire straits after spending millions on a visitor center -- underground in its case.) The new visitor center is a beautiful facility with a theater, a lecture hall and classroom space and was designed by a celebrity architect. No doubt there was a consultant who put together a study showing that adding all these bells and whistles would multiply the number of paying visitors, the sort of study that's usually put together to justify stadiums, convention centers, etc., for which no one is ever held accountable.

Jennifer

As a development professional at a historical house museum similar to the Twain Home, I can say that it is very rare indeed for such museums to sell our address lists. Most often, we trade lists with similar, hopefully like-minded institutions. This does indeed result in more junk mail, but it also expands audiences and support for smaller museums that might not otherwise be able to find new patrons and visitors in these almost-constant times of need.

Regarding the Twain House, which I have visited and really admire, I was shocked at their grand visitor center/museum building plan versus their minimal annual operating budget. I hope that the Museum survives and that who ever bails it out will demand better management and fiscal oversight in the future.

Scott Beveridge

Clayton, Henry Clay Frick's house in Pittsburgh, is incredible for its collection of the family's belongings. They are arranged as if the filthy-rich Fricks just walked out of the rooms of the museum.

Clayton Turner

I agree with Mr. Davis. Nationalize it and do it soon. There won't be many more options as the economy gets worse and mis-managed 501-3-C's will be hanging their hats out even more.

Besides - CT / Hartford needs to shift it's focus into a MAJOR PR campaign to make you people seem like you really are good people and that there is a reason to visit CT. Period.

E

There are a couple of good ways to make anonymous donations - networkforgood.org lets you make multiple donations with a single credit card or bank charge for a nominal fee. Or you can start a charitable gift fund at Fidelity (charitablegift.org) which allows you to donate appreciated stocks or mutual funds and save on capital gains tax in addition to allowing anonymous donations. Vanguard has something similar but with a higher minimum donation. All of these have the advantage that you can donate to multiple organizations but end up with just one receipt at tax time - a great time savings if you donate to many charities.

kevin

I visited the house last year, while on a business trip to Hartford. Some of the museum's rules seem self-defeating. For example, when I visited, two people on line right behind me were turned away from the tour because it was full. They were told to come back the next day. Not very likely. I would think that the house could stand a little more foot traffic, rather than keeping visits so low that it can't generate the funds to stay open.

Real in CT

Please, all of you realize, the people running the museum now are not crooks and did not try to dupe the tax payers of CT. Those people built the new addition to the museum and then left. The current people running the museum now are just trying to save it.

Dave Davis

Since we can't reach Henry Rogers of Standard Oil to help out Mr Clemens one more time, I see two sustainable routes to resolving the capital and cash flow issue with this national treasure. (And possibly a third, a blend of the first two.)

A) Nationalize it. Allocate responsibility for the MT House to the National Park Service. If there is an American author who better merits this honor, I don't know who it is.

B) Acquire patrons for a sizable capital fund. For example, solicit living American authors for "planned giving" committments to come out of their estates at the time of their deaths. (Asking them for money now wouldn't be a bad idea either, but we have to solve this problem, not patch it). Names like Roth, Updike, Kingsolver, Oates, Barry, King, Irving, Wolfe, Halperin and O'Rourke come to mind. Corporate sponsors who have benefitted from Twain's works in the public domain - Disney, for one - ought also to considering stepping up.

C) Do both. There's no reason the approach needs to be all private or all public.

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JP

There was talk of Nationalizing the Twain house a few years back...but remember, the Park Service has its own woes. Their historic sites and parks are in dire need of funding just for basic maintenance. And they aren't getting it. So realistically, the government tends to not do any better in running properties such as the Twain House. It's up to "the people" to take care of what's important. The Twain House should be saved! But if the general public (those who visit it) don't think so (and it shouldn't be through taxes) then maybe it needs to fail. It is unfortunate, especially since I work in the museum field, but lets face it folks, the country is focused on things other than history, and its too bad. Remember what Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes."