Save That House

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The threat was distant but definite, like cannon rumbling beyond the next ridge. Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow were thinking of selling their house. I’d lived in the Bigelows’ neighborhood when I first moved to Olympia, Washington, and I knew that their gabled timber-frame house was by far the oldest in town. Built in the mid-1800s by Mr. Bigelow’s grandparents—suffragists, abolitionists, and ardent temperance supporters—it was one of the few Gothic Revival homes left in the Pacific Northwest. Though battered by time and weather, and oddly remodeled in places, it was still by anyone’s reckoning an immensely historic house.

 

No one understood this better than Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow. For nearly sixty years they had lived with the family heirlooms, mowed the last two remaining acres of the original Bigelow land claim, and given tours of the house on request. Now they both were in their eighties, and the house and its antique furnishings made up their principal assets.

Would the city perhaps be willing to buy the historic Bigelow House and preserve it for posterity? The Bigelows fervently hoped so. If not, there were plenty of builders who would gladly bulldoze the pioneer dwelling for two acres of Puget Sound view.

City officials went into a huddle and emerged with dazzling smiles. This was such an important landmark, such a historic jewel , they were sure private donors would jump at the chance to save the Bigelow House. The city therefore would be buying just one of the Bigelow acres—the one without the old homestead—for use as a neighborhood park. But the city would happily cheer from the sidelines for any devoted history buffs who wanted to rescue the house.

Why, I have to wonder now, did we all think it sounded so simple?

If the Bigelow House was in danger, then the handful of us who cared about it would just have to roll up our sleeves. Mr. Bigelow’s grandfather had played a leading role in Washington’s break with Oregon Territory and later served as a member of Washington’s first Territorial Assembly. We couldn’t risk losing the family home he had built in the days before statehood. Somehow we would raise enough money to buy the Bigelow House.

“We can do it,” we told ourselves. “We can save this piece of the past.”

It’s the same reaction one has when seeing a lost puppy playing in traffic: Grab it and get it to safety. You never think at that moment about what happens after that. What if no one else wants the mutt, no matter how much you advertise? What if it’s yours forever ? If it grows to the size of a buffalo, will you be able to feed it? You love it, of course, and you certainly wouldn’t wish it any harm. But there are times when you wonder if maybe you shouldn’t have left it to play in the road.

The Bigelow House Preservation Association got off to a splendid start. Soon after, the Washington legislature (impressed perhaps that the Bigelow House had been built by a politician) granted $308,000.

Unfortunately this government funding came with conditions. The money could be used only for restoring the rundown structure after it had been purchased, not for acquiring the house. Worse yet, it was funding that we would lose if the project took more than two years. We now had just twenty-four months to buy the old place and restore it, or the state grant would disappear.

Of course, we couldn’t begin raising money until we 117 nailed down a price for the house. Weeks stretched into months as lawyers, appraisers, surveyors, and grown-up Bigelow children all thought of something to say. The Bigelows had pictured a life estate arrangement, whereby they could stay in their home undisturbed for the rest of their natural lives. But we had state funds ticking like a time bomb in our pocket, and we needed to get our hands on the house.

Reluctantly they agreed to move when the time came for renovations. Reluctantly we agreed that once renovations were finished, they could return to living on both floors. Public admission would be restricted to rooms on the ground floor and to four afternoons each week. “Like a stately home in England,” Mrs. Bigelow suggested, “where tourists are permitted to visit the duke and duchess’s house.”

A Cautionary Tale

To buy the house and its furnishings, and to run our historic house museum during its crucial first year, we would need to raise, we figured, $170,000. It was harder than we expected. The public, though mildly interested, was not entirely tuned in to historic preservation. “For what the state is giving you,” dozens of prospects told us, “you could tear the whole thing down and build two houses from scratch.” As for those who had moved here from somewhere back East, well, a home from the 1850s hardly struck them as truly historic. “You know,” such people were fond of saying, “I was raised in a house in New Hampshire a century older than that.” If the Bigelow House was still around in another hundred years, we were welcome to try them again.