Friends With Benefits: NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

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OPRHP-1How many historic sites does the NYSOPRHP maintain? That is not a trick question. At the NY Statewide Preservation Conference, May 5-7, in Albany and Troy, the question was an unintended running joke among several sessions. Generally the number was between 35 and 40 with a variation due to how to classify a site given a site can be recreational and historic. But this is not a post about the combination of recreation and historic sites in one bureaucracy (it wasn’t always that way). Rather it is a discussion about what it means to be a state historic site.

The opening session I attended was “Olana 50/50: Partners and Practices.” As it turns out, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Olana, the home of Hudson River Art painter Frederic Church, becoming a state site. In the presentation by Sean Sawyer, President of the Olana Partnership, he shared with the audience that a Church descendant still lived in house in the 1950s. The household objects were tagged for sale with “Everything must go” before a concerted effort led to the site being rescued. That effort involved such luminaries as Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, and Nelson Rockefeller, not your typical historic site rescuers. A turning point was reached when Life magazine, circulation 8.5 million, featured the site under the title “Must this Mansion be Destroyed?” The answer obviously was “no” and here we are 50 years later and Olana still stands tall although not without some threats from a potential nuclear energy plant.

Also present on the panel was Amy Hufnagel, the Director of Education, The Olana Partnership. In 2012, Rose Harvey, NYSOPRHP Commissioner, contacted Sara Giffen, Sawyer’s predecessor as President of the Olana Partnership about it taking over responsibility for the education at the site. Sara agreed and the result is the taxpayers no longer pay that salary, the cost has been outsourced to a private non-profit. While on one level that seems like a good deal for the taxpayers; but on another is raises questions about what it means to be a state-owned site and what happens if there is no Friends group with the financial wherewithal to bear such a cost.

To drive the point home, recently the private Olana Partnership advertised for a director of collections and research, Ph.D. preferred. This is a “newly-created senior management position.” True given the paintings at the site, it is not a typical historic location. Still, this is serious money and it testifies to the heft of the Friends group.

The Olana Partnership operates in a rarefied atmosphere as a friends group providing multiple and substantial benefits. When Sara stepped down as President it was after a reign that had raised millions on behalf of Olana. The recent annual benefit for the Partnership was held in Manhattan. How many historical sites have fundraising dinners 100 miles away from the site? The prices at the fundraiser also probably differed from that of many other organizations. For tables there was:

Grand Preservationist at $75,000
50th Anniversary Supporter at $50,000
Landscape Benefactor at $25,000
Restoration Patron at $12,500

and for individuals:

$5,000: Premium seating
$2,500: Preferred seating
$1,500: Seating

Clearly we are dealing with a Manhattan historic site that happens to be located upstate in Columbia County (near an Amtrak train stop). I do not mean to suggest that there is anything illegal or wrong with having a Friends group with this financial power. But clearly this Friends group operates in another league compared to the other sites. What happens if a site manager or education curator leaves a lesser site? Is there even one at every site?

As it turns out, State ownership of a site is not as straightforward as one might think. There are other arrangements besides the Friends with benefits at Olana. I receive a hard copy of the Fortress Niagara newsletter, a journal of the Old Fort Niagara Association at Old Fort Niagara State Park. A recent newsletter had an article about John Simcoe, a prominent person in Toronto and Ontario, who bears the same name as a character in AMC “Turn,” the cable TV series about a spy ring in the American Revolution based in Setauket. According to the newsletter, the very active Friends group has a staff of nine and works very hard to engage the surrounding community in the history of the site. In this case the Friends group which is on the NYSOPRH website site for the Fort seems to operate the site in its entirety on behalf of NYSOPRHP without any state employees.

When I attended the Oneida Indian workshop on planning for the anniversary celebration of the Battle of Oriskany from the American Revolution, I recommended that State and NPS staff from Fort Stanwix in Rome, the Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site in Oriskany, and Herkimer Home State Historic Site in Little Falls be invited as well. Although I have been to all three sites I did not realize or had forgotten that Oriskany has no staff. As the NYSOPRHP website states, the “Oriskany Battlefield is managed in partnership with the National Park Service at Fort Stanwix National Monument.” The Herkimer Home does have Parks employees but only a few months ago got a site manager.

An interesting and related note appeared in a recent post New York History Blog:

“Grant Cottage is one of several New York State historic sites that operate without a State Parks employee present. The non-profit Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage has managed Grant Cottage in cooperation with NYS Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, along with the Department of Corrections.”

So not only are there multiple state historic sites with no state employees, there even is a partnership with the Department of Corrections. Land ownership does change over time!

As one can see from this brief survey there are a variety of different arrangements with state historic sites. This situation is not unique to state historic sites. For example in New York City, Central Park with its private conservancy rakes in tens of million dollars annually. Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library and Battery Park in lower Manhattan also do well. That leaves a lot of lesser known and often small parks scattered around the city that live primarily off of what the city government provides. One could tell a similar story about the public schools and their friends groups, the PTAs. Not all schools, parks, or historic sites are created equal.

It’s not that Rose Harvey isn’t aware of the situation (the two of us spoke briefly about it once at the Jay Heritage Center, a private site). But it does raise the question of the State’s responsibilities when it takes ownership of a site:

1. Is it responsible for the maintenance of the site including the grounds, the buildings, the interiors and the exteriors?
2. Is it responsible for curating the collections?
3. Is it responsible for there being an education director?
4. Is it responsible for there being a site manager?

If the state chooses to outsource these responsibilities to private organizations, then its responsibility should be to monitor that these tasks are being completed.

If it is unable to fulfill these responsibilities, is there any legal recourse to requiring in the State to do so in accordance with its having voluntarily taken ownership of the site?

What are the minimum standards applicable to state ownership of a site?

Hopefully the New York State Historic Preservation Plan 2015-2020 addresses these questions so state-owned sites do not become an imperiled promise.

One thought on “Friends With Benefits: NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

  1. Peter Evans

    Last year I visited Van Clermont State Hist Site with my grandchildren, they had a Historic Faire happening with many wonderful exhibits, demonstrations and activities. I just happened to engage the Park Staff person at the door to the manor house. There was almost no one in the house so we had time to talk. I discovered that this person at the door was the “site manager” (interesting) a very nice and knowledgeable person. She told me that better than 80% of visitors to Clermont don’t even know it is a historic site or care. They come to use the magnificent grounds overlooking the Hudson River to BBQ and play lawn games. So the comment in Peter’s article about split roles Historic Site vs Rec. is real. I’ve also visited Olana and encountered people who come there to use the hiking trails (which are great with magnificent views)…our family enjoys both aspects…as far as I am concerned the landscape and views are at least 50% of the historic value at these sites. I have also wandered the Oriskany Battlefield and, of course, found no one there….and wondered about that(?). We could blame the OPRHP for accepting a site or property without a plan to maintain and interpret but this is far better than the alternative. The exact same situation exists within the National Park Service. What we see is only the “tip of the iceberg”.


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