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Extravagant structure, uncertain future

Board seeks new direction for North Bennington’s Victorian jewel



Contributing writer


The Park-McCullough House, one of Vermont’s architectural treasures, has fallen on hard times.

The 35-room, Second-Empire-style mansion, set on 200 acres near the center of North Bennington, has in recent decades operated as a museum and served as a popular location for weddings and special events. But this summer, the grand old house is open only by appointment while the association that owns it tries to settle on a new, economically sustainable course for the property.

The Park-McCullough mansion, with its impressive, wraparound veranda, was built as a summer home in 1865 with California gold rush and railroad money. Members of the Hall, Park and McCullough families, including two governors of Vermont, lived in the house seasonally until 1965, when it was turned over to the Park-McCullough House Association and opened as a museum. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

“It’s the most historically important house in the state, because it’s completely intact,” said Allen McCullough, a descendant of the family and a member of the association’s board of trustees. “Nothing ever left the house.”

But the house is closed to the general public this summer while the board pays off debts and considers the property’s future.

“We ran into financial trouble last fall,” said board president Katherine Traver.

The association had “a lot of accounts payable that hadn’t been dealt with in a timely fashion,” said Judith Frangos, the association’s treasurer. “We had a lot of catching up to do.”

To cope, the board laid off the house’s only paid staff, the executive director and assistant director, canceled its few winter events, and turned off the heat. Conservation experts advised the board that the lack of heat wouldn’t hurt the collections, Traver said.

At least for now, the board’s seven members taken over some of the duties of the former staff.

Concerts, weddings continue

This summer, “the only change is that we’re not open to drop-ins,” Frangos said. “All other events and activities are going on as usual.”

That includes five concerts, a Thursday evening croquet league on the lawn, a music camp, weddings, private parties, meetings, an Oktoberfest, and private tours by arrangement.

With income from events, “we’re going along quite well at the moment,” Traver said. Laying off the staff “freed enough money to pay the bills.”

Now, she added, the board has been seeking advice from officials at Hildene, Robert Todd Lincoln’s historic estate in Manchester, about what to do next.

“The place cannot survive just as a historic house museum,” Traver said. “All historic houses in the U.S. are in the same situation.”

Hildene’s executive director, Seth Bongartz, supported that view.

“There are many reasons for the trend, but attendance is headed in one direction,” Bongartz said. “House museums can succeed, but it can’t be done on the old ‘do not touch’ model.”

Bongartz said the Park-McCullough board approached Hildene’s staff for strategic help.

“We’re leading Park-McCullough through the process of really stepping back and thinking from scratch about the best course forward for the house,” he said. “It’s a process we’ve been through several times. It involves reading and looking at things such as function, operations and governance.”

The process takes a year to 18 months, he said.

“Park-McCullough is ahead of the curve in some ways,” he added. “Closing was a smart move to allow them to step back and take time to think outside day-to-day operations.”

At stake are the house and its contents, including original furniture, books, art, clothing, family records from bills to love letters, and documents about the house’s construction and history.

In many historic house museums, the furnishings are “the sort of thing the people who lived there would have had,” said Jane Radocchia, a professional architect and a docent at the house since 2005. In contrast, Park-McCullough House has the objects the family actually used.

The family’s connection with the property continues to this day; Allen McCullough and his wife, Randolyn Zinn, live part time in a farmhouse on the property.

California connections

The Park-McCullough property started as the family farm of Hiland Hall, a Bennington native who served as Vermont’s U.S. representative from 1833-43 and, after a stint in California, was elected governor of Vermont for one term in 1858.

Laura Hall, Hiland’s daughter, married Trenor Park. The Parks and their daughter Eliza, called Lizzie, moved to California, where Park made his fortune. There, the family also befriended John G. McCullough, the attorney general of California, and McCullough and Lizzie Park fell in love.

When the Parks returned east and built the mansion, McCullough came east as well, and he and Lizzie were married in the house.

John McCullough was elected governor of Vermont in 1902. He and Trenor Park were entrepreneurs involved in the development of railroads and the Panama Canal, according to the Web site of Park-McCullough House.

Over the years, the family lavished its wealth on North Bennington and Bennington, donating libraries, water and sewer systems, supporting history and the arts, and helping to establish Bennington College and the Vermont Veterans’ Home.

After the mansion was turned over the Park-McCullough Association in 1965, several family members helped out “by writing a big check every year,” Traver said. But those family members are now dead, and the current generation doesn’t have that kind of money, she added.

Allen McCullough, Trenor Park’s great-great-grandson, called the house “a wonderful, ridiculous structure.”

“It’s hungry for help, it’s hungry for money, it’s hungry for attention, it’s hungry for volunteers,” he said. “It requires a lot that most new houses don’t.”

But meeting those needs will require a new approach, he added.

“There’s no economic model for the house that’s worked in 30 years,” McCullough said. “It’s never turned a profit, and the endowment is gone. We need to build a model that will work.”

To collect ideas, the board held two forums, one with the house’s docents and volunteers in March, and a second with any interested people in April. A third, for the North Bennington community, is planned for June 3, Traver said.

Those who turned out for the first two forums volunteered ideas such as using the property for a community center, a genealogy research center, a bed-and-breakfast inn, a film festival, and a farmers market.

“We would like to have a vision by next spring,” Traver said.

History at risk?

But Radocchia said the docents “are really worried that the board will dismantle or throw away the collections” if the building’s function changes.

More traffic in the structure could jeopardize both the contents and the mansion itself.

“The building is more fragile than the board thinks,” Radocchia said, citing light switches and door handles that have to be jiggled, worn floors, and peeling wallpaper.

“The dining room chairs and table are very fragile and can’t be sat on or leaned against,” she said. The house isn’t handicapped accessible. Because it was built for summer use only, it has no insulation.

The carriage house, often used now for events and gatherings, could be converted to allow year-round occupancy, Radocchia said. She and the other docents hope the main house “will remain a museum we can share.”

Exactly how much money the house needs annually is unknown.

“We don’t have a stable budget at this point,” Frangos said. “This is the first year we’re operating without a staff and minusing out all our past obligations.”

The house has ongoing expenses for maintenance, insurance, and groundskeeping, but Frangos declined to say how much those add up to. The mansion also needs repairs. According to published reports, repair of the house’s extensive veranda alone could cost $55,000.

Allen McCullough, who is in charge of buildings and grounds for the board, oversaw painting of the veranda in May, with volunteer labor and technical assistance, as well as donated primer and paint.

“It’s like painting the Brooklyn Bridge,” he said. “When you reach the end, it’s time to start over.”

McCullough said the surrounding community has “a huge, important sense of ownership” in the property after years of coming to the mansion to celebrate important events such as proms and weddings.

“We want to encourage and develop that,” he said. “But the community is not committed to partnership. They’re not members, and they haven’t been here for a while. We’re trying to open the doors back up to bring people back and be involved.

“The house is a cornerstone of the community,” he said. “It’s always been in flux. We’re looking to find out what it means and what it could be.”

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