In 1987, Lebanon’s city council began discussing what to do with the city’s oldest house. Now known as Dana House, it stood on private property, and the owners offered to sell it to the city for $15,000 instead of tearing it down.
The only caveat was that the city would have to pay to move the house, which was built in 1765, to property owned by the school district on Elm Street West. After the purchase, a committee was formed to create a plan for moving the house, then known as the Hall-Cody House, and to determine how to restore it.
The intention at the time was to create a “living classroom” where Lebanese students could experience the beginnings of life in the city. While it was moved to Seminary Hill in 1988, a year later the committee struggled to find volunteers and funds to preserve it.
A decade later, in 1998, those efforts were still ongoing, according to Valley News clips compiled by Nicole Ford Burley, Lebanese historian and acting president of the Heritage Commission.
“They could be released today and very little would have changed,” Ford Burley said. “It’s a long-standing dilemma and challenge.”
The city is currently asking the public to submit ideas for what they would like to see happen to Dana House. The suggestions are not limited to residents of Lebanon.
Once the proposals are collected, the city will likely launch a public inquiry before the end of the year to see what direction residents want to go with the historic structure, said Rebecca Owens, the city’s associate planner.
Dana House currently does not have regular opening hours; those who want to visit should call the city to arrange a visit. One of the reasons for access is that the house needs asbestos and lead reduction, and most of the structure is unheated.
A few years ago, city officials applied for an LCHIP grant from New Hampshire to replace the roof, but their application was denied.
“The state was receptive to the request, however, at the time they wanted to see a clearer path for how the Dana House would be used and not just see it protected in its current state,” Owens said. “They wanted to see it used and what that business plan would be, and we didn’t have a plan for its use.”
There is also a question of funding. Late city historian Robert Leavitt donated $25,000 to restore Dana House, and there are also capital reserve funds that can be used once grants requiring matching funding are obtained.
“Lebanon is very lucky to have it, and I am very grateful to all the volunteers and members of the city council who have stepped up to preserve it,” said Ford Burley. “It’s a really difficult structure because we have to restore it, but there’s no point in committing to restoration until we know what the purpose of the structure is – why are we restoring it?”
While there may be taxpayer dollars available for restoration work, Owens stressed that a “substantial portion” of funding must come from grants and donations.
“The scale of what is needed for a project like this goes beyond what we can justify when considering other needs such as critical infrastructure and emergency services,” he said. she declared.
Another challenge is that since Dana House is owned by the city, there are fewer grant opportunities available than if it were owned by a nonprofit organization. The Heritage Commission is made up of volunteers who have responsibilities beyond Maison Dana. The original plan was to turn the house into a living history home or museum, but that idea may no longer make sense.
“I think it’s a great plan and would love to see it, but…I just don’t see it as a feasible option these days,” Ford Burley said.
Similar existing museums typically face operational challenges, including financial difficulties compounded by declining visitor numbers.
“With Maison Dana in particular, the logistics of operations, that’s the real challenge,” she said. “Who would maintain it? Who would open it for visits? »
(Members of the Historical Society of Lebanon give regular tours of the Marion J. Carter Farm in downtown Lebanon, which is managed by a board of directors that maintains space for community groups to use. The Society History of Lebanon hosts exhibits and maintains its collections at the Carter Homestead but does not own the building.)
There are also questions about the public and visitors who would be attracted to visit Dana House as a museum.
“When you have historical places, static displays, does that encourage repeat visits? If you’ve been there once, are you going back? said Owens. “Is it serious if someone doesn’t come back? If it’s revenue-based, it probably is. If it’s just there to be some kind of local history awareness memorial and landmark that you visit in fourth grade and then as an adult when you have visitors in town, maybe it’s to the satisfaction of the public.
These are questions that city officials and members of the Heritage Commission hope to get public comment on.
The Heritage Commission has also experienced a lot of turnover over the past nine months. Many long-time members have left the commission. Currently, the longest-serving member has been on the board for approximately 18 months.
“We’re still trying to familiarize ourselves with the Dana House situation, its history, what has been attempted, what discussions have already taken place,” Ford Burley said.
Both Owens and Ford Burley are open to transforming Dana House into a public space that multiple groups could use. This would help fill a long-standing need for more public space in western Lebanon.
“I see a lot of interest in having a public space in West Lebanon, and there is a very strong interest in arts and culture in our community,” Owens said. “I thought maybe there was an organization that would like to help run Maison Dana as a flexible gallery and exhibition space,” including exhibits on Lebanese history.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about Dana House, visit lebanonnh.gov/1202/Dana-House. For ideas on how Dana House can be used, visit lebanonnh.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=2025 or email [email protected]
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3221.