If you’ve ever had a burning desire to live in a great historic house, for nothing down, and with no monthly payment, then one of these programs may be perfect for you. You’d need a hammer, and some other tools, and need to be comfortable with a lot of manual labor ….and be willing to commit to a 7-30 year project, but for the right person, a historic curatorship program may be just the right ticket to living in a historic property (like this 1815 farmhouse in Annapolis, MD at left- part of a historic curatorship program for the last 16 years).
In most states, the state governments own many historic properties, but just don’t have the financial resources to preserve, restore, or even stabilize antique houses that have fallen into disrepair. Many of these properties sit on state land- mostly older farmland that has been converted to recreational property. The houses generally date to the 19th-century and many have been abandoned for years. To solve this dilemma and preserve the history in these houses, several states have turned to resident curator programs, offering free use of the houses and surrounding land in exchange for service in renovating and maintaining the property.
For the state, it’s a good deal. The only two other real alternatives are selling off the properties, or turning them into musem houses. Selling them is problematic, because they so often are surrounded by state land set aside for recreational purposes, and by selling them, the state loses most of the control over insuring that the history in the property is preserved. The museum house route doesn’t work very well anymore, either. Declining visitation, climbing expenses, and skyrocketing insurance have made it a tough go even for established museums (witness Strawberry Banke selling off one of its properties), let alone for new startup house museums.
Resident curators get an opportunity to live in a historic landmark without having to pay rent, a mortgage, or property taxes. And they live in a great neighborhood- they’re usually surrounded by scenic state park land. Curators agree to put in a certain amount of restoration work over the term of their contract. In one state, for instance, curators agree to do $150,000 worth of work over the course of 7 years, then are allowed to stay in the house for free, as long as they maintain and oversee it for up to 30 years. Most curators do the restoration work themselves, and their labor is a significant component of that $150,000. Others hire contractors for the work. For materials, curators can mostly deduct those expenses from their taxes as a charitable contribution (check with your tax professional on that).
Requirements for the curator positions vary, but most states are looking for people (especially couples) with some restoration or contracting experience, and who can demonstrate that they do have at least the minimal financial resources to start on the rehab work. This could be an ideal opportunity for a real estate agent with a historic specialty and some contracting experience, too. Living in a prominent historic property and running an ongoing blog on the restoration efforts there could be an incredible credibility-builder with historic house buyers and sellers.
The first curatorship program was established in Maryland in 1982, and there are now also programs in Massachusetts, Delaware, and North Carolina, with more planned in Vermont and Pennsylvania. There have been many successes, including the 1901 Willowdale Estate in Topsfield, Massachusetts (pictured at right). For a complete guide to becoming a Resident Curator, and to starting a curatorship arrangement in a state that hasn’t established a program, check out Charles Mazurek’s guide at www.FreeHistoricHouses.com. Here are some of the current opportunities in curator programs:
Wachusett Mountain State Reservation- Princeton, Massachusetts: This is the superintendent’s house at Wachusett Mountain, a popular winter and summer destination and home to 35o year-old Old Growth forests, 17 miles of hiking trails, and many geological features. Not much info on the building itself, but you can get all the contact information, as well as find out about a dozen more curator houses in Massachusetts at the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Shelby, North Carolina: El Nido is a very rare example of a Spanish Mission bungalow in North Carolina. Built in 1921, this important architectural treasure is now in need of approximately $150,000 worth of restoration work. For more info and to apply, visit Preservation North Carolina.
Morgan Run Natural Environmental Area- Sykesville, Maryland: The Wachter house dates to the mid 1800s and is built into the steep slope overlooking Morgan Run. The three-story German-built farmhouse retains many of its original features. Click here for the 12-page Propsectus. For 4 other houses currently available in Maryland, check the Maryland Historic Curatorship Program.