Living Above The Past: Museum Opens Up To Tenants Actors in period garb are the usual denizens of the Strawbery Banke Museum campus in Portsmouth, N.H., which spans 250 years of history. To make ends meet, though, the museum has lured more modern dwellers — renters for the upper levels of its historic homes.
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Living Above The Past: Museum Opens Up To Tenants

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Living Above The Past: Museum Opens Up To Tenants

Living Above The Past: Museum Opens Up To Tenants

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While farmers recognize the drought as a temporary crisis, museum directors realize rocky economic times may be here to stay for them. One New Hampshire museum is taking some permanent action by hanging for rent signs. Amanda Loder of New Hampshire Public Radio reports.

AMANDA LODER, BYLINE: All it takes to enter a time warp in New Hampshire is 15 bucks and a summer afternoon. Spanning more than 250 years of American history, Strawbery Banke is the oldest neighborhood in one of the state's oldest city, Portsmouth. It's kind of like Colonial Williamsburg light. Stationed inside many of these 37 homes are re-enactors in different period garb. Inside a hulking white house, it's 1872.

SARAH GOODWIN: Good afternoon. I am Sarah Goodwin. Welcome to my home. So you enjoyed the garden, did you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, it was great.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We did. Beautiful.

LODER: Typically, Strawbery Banke's visitors have been of the school group and tour bus variety. But when the economy went downhill, museum staffers started thinking about drawing longer-term guests.

RODNEY ROWLAND: And it's fair to say that we have always struggled to find a financial model that sustains us adequately, and we've never had an income stream that was consistent.

LODER: Rodney Rowland is Strawbery Banke's facilities director. As we walk the grounds, he explains that the historic houses' upper levels are usually storage space. So it made sense to turn these extra rooms into extra revenue - modern apartments and office spaces. All told, Rowland hopes this move will add $300,000 to the bottom line.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LODER: A couple of tourists inside a bright yellow federal-style house are wandering through a quiet woodcraft exhibit. They stare intently at a carved eagle and various tools kept behind glass. What they don't know, until he tromps downstairs to greet me, is that 60-year old Tom Richter lives upstairs.

TOM RICHTER: Hi. How you doing, Amanda? Nice to meet you.

LODER: Nice to meet you.

RICHTER: Come on up.

LODER: With his easy grin, bare feet, cutoff khakis and baggy T-shirt, he kind of looks like he walked out of a Jimmy Buffett song. The visitors shoot us curious looks as Richter shows me around.

RICHTER: As you can see, I live behind a theater rope.

LODER: At the top of the old wooden staircase sits an apartment that's not much bigger than a college dorm. To the right...

RICHTER: It's a kitchenette and a bathroomette, I guess.


LODER: Richter's day job is working as a project manager for the city's public works department. On his time off, he's a musician. He's working on a set of folk songs about Portsmouth right now, and he moved to Strawbery Banke for inspiration. As long as he can have his window air conditioner - discreetly placed in a back window so tourists aren't likely to see - and room for his banjo, he's pretty much happy. Although...

RICHTER: There was a rule that said no alcohol, and my hand automatically reached for the phone. I called Rodney, and he clarified. No, you can have alcohol upstairs. You just can't maraud around the grounds while we're open. So all is well.

LODER: Eva Boice lives next door to Tom over the woodcrafts exhibit. Mysterious holes in floorboards and swatches of paint layers revealed on her door during renovation are all part of the charm.

EVA BOICE: And I feel that there was either a hand of God or fate in me being here, because this is a fantastically unique situation.

LODER: Overall, she says Strawbery Banke has done a good job of preserving its living history illusion downstairs while catering to its modern tenants' needs. But every now and then, something happens. Take the washer and dryer, which are carefully hidden behind a cupboard door downstairs, just off from the exhibit space.

BOICE: And one of the kids stumbled into it one day, and I heard him say, oh. They had these back then too? And I just started to laugh so hard...

LODER: And besides the occasional appliance sighting, the only other hint of present-day New Hampshire life over this exhibit might just be...


LODER: ...a few bars of Tom Richter's music. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Loder.


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