Historic houses to stay with museum for now
By EILEEN ZAFFIRO-KEAN, Staff Writer
As seen in the Daytona Beach News-Journal
DAYTONA BEACH — People who’ve come to love a cluster of houses dating back to 1790 in St. Augustine’s historic district just got a one-year reprieve to enjoy the tiny village just the way it is.
With the expected buyer of the Dow Museum of Historic Houses unable to come up with the money, the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts & Sciences won’t be selling its collection of houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places this year as planned.
But the sale of the 18th and 19th century homes, including one once occupied by an editor who worked with Mark Twain, could be revived in 12 months.
“We told the Museum of Arts & Sciences we still want the property,” said Susan Connor, acting executive director of the Children’s Museum of St. Johns. “We just need more time.”
A lease-to-purchase agreement with the children’s museum penned in November was supposed to lead to a sale of the nine homes in May. But the nonprofit children’s museum was able to come up with only a fraction of the $1.5 million it agreed to pay.
So the Museum of Arts & Sciences’ board of trustees has decided to keep operating the village as usual and give the children’s museum — a mostly volunteer organization that until recently had an annual operating budget of $35,000 — a one-year extension on the sale.
“We’re still in a partnership with St. Augustine (children’s museum),” said Carol Platig, president of the museum’s board. “We reassured them if they raised the money they could buy it.”
“I think all of us knew it was a bit ambitious to do it in the initial six-month time frame,” Connor said. “We needed to get on the property and do our own due diligence, get a handle on repairs, put together a budget, have a professional rendering done, get a master site plan.”
That initial work took about four months, and fundraising didn’t really get started until March, Connor said.
The children’s museum has raised about $500,000 so far in cash and pledges, but is confident it can raise the remaining $1 million to buy the property and then a few million dollars more over the next couple of years to tackle upgrades and transform the site into a place for kids, she said.
The St. Augustine museum put down a $5,000 deposit in November 2011, and added $50,000 to that in late May, Connor said.
The children’s museum is being allowed to use the Dow property house at 246 St. George St. for office and meeting space at no charge, but is paying for utilities.
The closing date for the sale now is June 28, 2013. If the five-year-old St. Augustine museum can’t come up with the $1.5 million by then, both museums will have to decide if they want to keep the deal alive or let it go.
The nine historic homes, once valued at $4.5 million, were a gift to the Museum of Arts & Sciences from a Detroit native who had bought them up one by one.
That Michigan man, Kenneth Worcester Dow, first traveled to St. Augustine in the 1930s. Dow, a distant relative of the Dows who started the chemical company of the same name, was taken with the nation’s oldest city.
In 1940 he decided to make St. Augustine his home, and he bought the 1790 Colonial structure that was home for a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Prince Achille Murat, in 1824.
By the early 1950s, Dow had acquired all nine houses on the block.
In the early 1970s, Dow and his wife took a class at Stetson University in DeLand and became friends of the professor, Gary Libby. A few years later Libby became director of the Museum of Arts & Sciences, and served in that position from 1977 to 2002, and again in 2005 and 2006.
The friendship between Libby and the Dows led to the homes being endowed to the Museum of Arts & Sciences in 1989. The couple also donated a generous portion of their artwork, antiques, period furniture and several hundred thousand dollars.
After a few years of restoration work, the walled-off homes were dubbed Old St. Augustine Village and opened to the public. The one-acre property has since been renamed the Dow Museum of Historic Houses.
Both the Daytona Beach and St. Augustine museums hope the property that covers a full city block will soon become a unique indoor/outdoor children’s museum that could include a children’s art gallery, tree house, stage, new fountain and several other kid-sized additions.
“The idea with children’s museums is to be able touch everything,” Connor said.
The sale would not include the period furniture and other things inside the houses, although some of it would be given to the children’s museum under a long-term loan agreement, Connor said.
Although the property would be transformed to appeal to kids, it would still retain its historic integrity, she said.
“The goal is to build on what’s already unique and historic and charming about the property,” she said. “The goal is to create an experience for kids that builds on what’s already there.”
No houses would be demolished, but two new buildings could go up for ticket sales and restrooms, she said.
If all goes as planned, the historic village of houses would close next summer for renovations and open back up in phases, Connor said. The first phase would open in early 2014, and the full property could be open by the fall of 2015 to coincide with St. Augustine’s 450th birthday, she said.
The houses would be restored about two or three at a time, she said. The extra time for the sale to go through will also give the St. Augustine museum time to hire a permanent executive director, she said.
Board president Platig said the sale isn’t being pursued just to raise cash for the Daytona museum.
“That’s not the motivation,” Platig said. “We’ve got a lot going on here in Daytona Beach. Offsite properties are difficult to manage.”
Among the things the Daytona museum has going on are projects to rebuild its flood-damaged west wing with recently awarded federal government money and construct a new building to house a vast Florida art collection being donated by Cici and Hyatt Brown.
Andrew Sandall, the new executive director of the Museum of Arts & Sciences, said the sale makes sense.
“It’s in the best interest of the museum,” Sandall said. “It puts it back in a local ownership. They can make it a real community gem.”