Editorial: Colonial History; Preserving Blow-Me-Down Farm

There’s much to like about the National Park Service’s proposal for the Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish: It would advance historic preservation, promote cultural education, appropriately augment the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site and appears to have been created with guidance from the neighboring community.

But there’s a significant catch: It’s dependent on the kindness of strangers. Under the plan embraced by the Park Service, the first seven years of developing the proposed Cornish Colony History and Art Center would be devoted not just to restoring the property but also to scrounging up the money necessary to pay for the work — through fundraising, grants, partnerships and leases. If that effort doesn’t succeed, the Park Service would make adjustments, including perhaps scaling back its plans.

This sort of contingency planning represents a bow toward reality, of course. The Park Service acknowledges that its hat-in-hand approach is necessary to “augment what minimal federal funding is available.” Fans of smaller, leaner government no doubt will applaud: The pinched flow of federal dollars will force the project’s supporters to get creative and not further burden taxpayers they perceive to be already tapped out. Our enthusiasm about making the preservation of valuable cultural assets dependent on securing private support is more restrained. Maybe this is the best that can be hoped for under current circumstances, but when projects are judged meritorious, it would be far better to deploy public resources.

The National Park Service acquired the 43-acre Blow-Me-Down Farm in 2010 through a gift from the nonprofit Saint-Gaudens Memorial. Located between Route 12A and the Connecticut River, it was the leisure farm of Charles Beaman, a wealthy New York City lawyer who was responsible for interesting the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in establishing a summer residence in Cornish in 1885. Beaman eventually acquired more than 2,000 acres in the town, and he and Saint-Gaudens persuaded a number of artists, writers and cultural heavyweights to move there, thereby creating what became known as the Cornish Art Colony. Members of the colony, which lasted until about the 1920s, socialized, collaborated and collectively influenced the direction of turn-of-the-century American culture.

Those who have visited Saint-Gaudens’ home, studio and the surrounding estate can fully appreciate how successfully the Park Service and the Saint-Gaudens Memorial have preserved the site of the sculptor’s most productive years in a way that both displays his genius and explains his influence. The Park Service proposes to use Blow-Me-Down to focus on the Cornish Art Colony and its influence on the sculptor and American arts. That would be accomplished through a mix of exhibits, educational programs, special events, research, interpretive experiences and artist-in-residence programs.

That’s the general plan; the specifics, including total cost, are very much up in the air. The property includes seven buildings in need of some amount of repair, restoration and maintenance. The Park Service’s recommended plan, which still must be adopted, envisions leasing out some of the buildings, with the tenants accepting financial responsibility for fixing and maintaining them. How many of the buildings get leased out, who leases them and how closely the buildings’ uses would hew to the overall purpose of the art center would all be determined by how much revenue is captured to support the development. “In the event that efforts identified under Phase 1 to raise funds through grants and partnerships have not shown significant headway by the eighth year, Phase 2 would permit the park to expand acceptable uses of the Farm beyond those which directly support the park’s purpose and significance,” the plan says.

Presumably, they’re not talking about mini-golf. But the further those uses drift from the art center’s central purpose, the less successful the site will be at preserving, capturing and explaining this piece of American cultural history.

There’s nothing wrong with figuring out how to take advantage of whatever revenue-generating capacity the site has, of course, particularly if the money-producing enterprises are compatible. And it should be noted that the generosity, intervention and foresight of well-intentioned and well-heeled private parties have always been crucial to the preservation of the country’s natural and historic heritage. In many cases, though, preservation came about because benefactors recognized the value of a property or asset before the government did and acted pre-emptively to serve the public interest. In this instance, the Park Service has recognized the importance of preserving a cultural asset and is proposing a plan that essentially expresses hope that enough money will materialize to make it happen.

Those many Upper Valley residents who have visited Saint-Gaudens’ estate and found themselves grateful that the importance of preserving the site was recognized in time will be keeping their fingers crossed.