Save That House


On a blistering weekend in July we moved the family heirlooms back to the Bigelow House. In went the hand-painted fireplace screen, the exquisite rosewood sewing box, the Eastlake dining room table. Our exacting designer spent most of a week straightening portraits, adjusting lace curtains, and arranging the Bigelow furniture in nineteenth-century style. “Oh,” he said, beaming, gazing around when he’d finished. “It looks like 1871!” The year that the Bigelows’ square grand piano was shipped from New York ‘round the Horn. The year that Susan B. Anthony, stumping for suffrage along the West Coast, visited Olympia and dined at the Bigelow House. Eighteen years before Washington Territory earned a star on Old Glory. We had done what we had set out to do.

Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow moved back into the house in August. They had six weeks to get themselves settled before the public opening of the Bigelow House Museum. “I’ll try to have things ready by then,” Mrs. Bigelow told us. And then she spent every waking moment rearranging the house. Paintings were moved to places that she found more familiar. Dozens of personal knickknacks exploded out of packing crates and scattered themselves about. We begged. We reasoned. We argued. But ultimately we were bested. She had ruled this estate for sixty years, and she wasn’t going to stop now. “We can’t live in the 1870s,” Mrs. Bigelow said firmly. After spending six months in exile, the duchess was back.

To her credit, she left the large pieces of furniture more or less where we had put them. And there was a certain Victorian spirit in her clutter of trinkets and gewgaws, even if the items themselves were wildly out of line. A lot of our docents-in-training, earnestly learning how to give tours, thought the house now looked “more homey.” Since strict historical accuracy seemed to be out of the question, we would have to settle for that.

The Bigelow House made its public debut on a Sunday in mid-September. For half an hour after we had cut the ceremonial ribbon, not a single customer showed up. But slowly visitors began to trickle in: young families, grandparents, students, a group of traveling Bulgarians, fifty or sixty people in all before the end of the day. They gawked at the soaring ceilings and hand-cut wallpaper borders. They peered at the spidery penmanship in Grandfather Bigelow’s diary and listened to tales of how Grandmother Bigelow had taught school on the Northwest frontier. Almost all of them seemed to think the new museum was terrific. And almost all of them believed the city was running the place. “It’s great,” we heard over and over. “The City Council should really be proud.”

Four months after the museum had opened (and nearly three years after we had started), we finally succeeded in reaching our initial fundraising goal. By that time, of course, it was clear we had greatly underestimated the cost of staying in business. As our treasurer cheerfully puts it, the Bigelow House loses money each time it opens its doors.

Our relationship with the Bigelows, after a prickly start, has gradually found its balance. They’ve learned to live with a gift shop stuffed into their dining room sideboard. We’ve learned to look past the toy Mickey Mouse perched on the library stairs. Heaven knows what visitors make of the plastic beadwork basket displayed on the grand piano. I’m not about to ask. Yet if the Bigelow House Museum isn’t everything that we dreamed of, it is still some kind of miracle. “You saved the house,” my husband says. “Try not to lose sight of that.”

If we hadn’t been such idealists, if we’d had any clue at all about what we were getting into, a rare piece of regional history might have been lost forever. We grabbed it and dragged it to safety and so far are keeping it fed. With luck the Bigelow House will still be standing long after we’re buried, telling its nineteenth-century stories to children born after we’re gone.

Was it worth all the work, the anxiety, the sleepless nights? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Not a chance.