Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Will we be a National Historic Landmark?

Context: Part One

Andalusia Farm was the context for some of the best fiction writing of the 20th century. The farm’s historical significance is currently being reviewed by the National Park Service for potential National Historic Landmark Designation (NHL).

I spent two days recently with Evelyn Causey and Fielding Link. They were conducting field work at Andalusia as part of the NHL review by the National Park Service, the agency that administers the National Historic Landmark program. Andalusia Farm is already on the National Register of Historic Places but a National Historic Landmark? That is exciting! We likely won’t know for sure until next spring. It is a lengthy process of research and case-making on the degree of the farm’s national importance.

Lyn, Fielding and I tromped around the property for hours armed with maps, aerial views, cameras, and GPS recorders. We saw vestigial roads, frayed planting terraces, deer tracks, turkey and bobcat prints, and plenty of old fence lines. It wasn’t hard for us to imagine the field where Mrs. May has her fateful and fatal encounter with the wayward bull.

We also spent considerable time in and around the historic structures on the farm. We climbed up into the Cow Barn hayloft and it was easy to conjure the tryst-that-didn’t-end-well between Joy/Hulga and Manley Pointer. From that vantage point we looked out on the farm and could easily imagine the comings and goings of the farm folks who silently conspired murder in “The Displaced Person.”

Flannery’s letters also document so much of the farm context in which she wrote. Historic photographs and oral histories add to that record to help researchers understand what the farm looked like during the period of significance. That’s “preservation-speak” for the period of time the property gained its significance as a historic resource. In other words: 1951 to 1964, when Flannery lived and wrote here.

Sure the farm has other stories to tell. The property was a planation in the 19th century and later was a weekend retreat for Flannery’s uncle, Bernard McHugh Cline, who purchased the property in the early 1930s and whose large extended family enjoyed outings at the farm. There is also the story of the whole farm enterprise—later co-owned and grown by Louis Cline and his sister Regina Cline O’Connor—and the scale, economics, and the challenges of a middle-aged widow primarily responsible for managing people, property, and equipment at mid-century, while also supporting her artist daughter.

But Andalusia’s significance is primarily connected to Flannery O’Connor’s residence and creative output here between 1951 and 1964. The Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation is dedicated to preserving that context. Andalusia’s first Executive Director, Craig Amason, can be credited with the hard work of bringing the Hill House and Cow Barn back to life. He raised the funds and administered those capital projects−a heroic task with limited resources. Those buildings are now open to the public and extend the visitor experience on site. We want to continue to responsibly care for the remaining historic structures so we preserve as much context as possible.

We are fortunate to have received funding to rebuild the Equipment Shed. Thank you Watson-Brown Foundation Junior Board and our wonderful anonymous donor! That project is almost complete and soon visitors can see the center for repair and reuse at the farm. The well-used work tables, the room where horse tack was kept, and the farm’s vintage tractor and wagon all evoke the period of significance.

As Lyn and Fielding and I walked around the shed it was easy to imagine the paranoia and whispering in unseen corners that course through “The Displaced Person.” The shed will also provide what is perhaps our largest gathering space; a beautiful sheltered spot overlooking woods for programs (films, lectures, workshops, etc.) that can likely accommodate 100 or more.

Programming is necessary for any historic site and using structures for engagement ensures the farm is loved and supported. After all, a static shrine will quickly wither and fade if visitors don’t engage more deeply than passively looking. Engagement and relevance are critical as we compete for leisure time and combat a growing disinterest in history and literature. With each rebuild we must design-in ways to encourage people to visit the site, to learn something, to (re)read Flannery’s writing, and to come back and bring friends and relatives.

Repeat visitation is the lifeblood of every historic site, historic house, and every museum, aquarium, zoo, and botanic garden. With each structure brought back online we encourage repeat visitation. Next up for rescue? The Horse Barn, a threatened structure that is seriously leaning and rapidly deteriorating. The structure is in clear view from the Main House porch and Flannery’s room, the one she painted on canvas, and the one where various equine creatures (horses and ponies, donkeys, burros and hennies) lived during her time at the farm.

One-by-one we are caring for structures before it’s too late. Of course, the Main House is on the list as is the small Calf Barn and remaining tenant house on the edge of the front pasture as well as the “Nail House” a collapsed structure to which Flannery’s bird run was attached. For us it is all about context and the period of significance while also acknowledging our own 21st century context and the realities faced by all historic sites.

Stay tuned for the next post Context: Part Two as I discuss the context for historic sites and house museums worldwide and the ways in which Andalusia staff are participating in industry-shaping, leading edge practices.

-- Elizabeth Wylie, Executive Director, The Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation

Evelyn Causey and Fielding Link

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