15 October 2014

Orchard House and the Power of Place

In 2012 Orchard House celebrated it's 100th anniversary as a museum. There were many events held that year to celebrate. For one of these, Pulitzer Prize winning Eden's Outcasts author, John Matteson, spoke to Orchard House supporters about the personal connection he developed with the House as well as the "incredibly generous spirit" that many who visit feel when they are here. We wanted to share the following excerpts from that talk and highlight some of the reasons we are embarking upon our new documentary.

From our Kickstarter Campaign Video - John Matteson in Bronson's Study

I offer my thanks to all of you for the passionate and durable commitment that you have made to the legacy of Louisa May Alcott and to that extraordinary place known as Orchard House. . . as I say a few words about the House and what I shall call the Power of Place.

There are very few dissatisfactions that I can think of that go with being a biographer. One of them is the fact that your editor and your agent very seldom want you to write two books about the same people. Much as I would have loved to spend a good deal longer in Alcottland, the push was on for something different and, hence, as you know, I have spent the last four years intently focused instead on Margaret Fuller. And therein lies a fascinating comparison. . . quite honestly the experience hasn’t been the same, and I have been asking myself why. Some of it may have to do with the fact that there’s nothing to compare with the giddy experience of being a first time author. Perhaps something more of it has had to do with the personality of my subject. Louisa May Alcott’s humor, her vitality, and her loving insights into the human condition make her an incomparably appealing person with whom to spend four or five years. These might have been partial reasons why Eden’s Outcasts was a uniquely fulfilling project, but neither of them is the reason. I truly believe that the reason why writing about Margaret Fuller was more challenging – the reason why it was so much harder to bring her up closer to my imaginative eye —was that, unlike the Alcotts, she has no accessible public place that is particularly hers: no living shrine that is sacred to her memory. . .

The epilogue of my biography of Fuller is called “Margaret-Ghost,” which is a description borrowed from Henry James. It is singularly appropriate for her. Without a place where people can go to learn about her, to see her belongings and where she slept and ate and wrote, one feels that she is farther away, almost but not quite beyond the field of our magnetism, resistant to our poor power to call her back. We have letters galore, a few journals, and handful or two of images, but she can never be present.

It was from this same fate of almost irretrievable remoteness that Louisa and the other Alcotts were rescued a century ago, when the foresighted founders of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association saved Orchard house from destruction and set it on the path to becoming the thriving historic site that it is today. Knowing Orchard House as well as all of you do, I am sure you find it no mere flight of imagination to suppose that a building can possess a soul. One’s appreciation need not be for history; it need not be for literature. One need only understand the preciousness of love and family to know that Orchard House is more than boards and nails, greater and more precious than paint and plaster. It is a place that welcomes, and it is one that inspires.

My own association with Orchard House began when I was in the early phases of researching and writing Eden’s Outcasts. As you may know, Eden’s Outcasts was my first book, and back in 2002 and 2003, I was taking my very first steps toward authorship. If you had asked me then to offer any good reason why anyone should take any great interest in me as a writer, I would have been stumped for an answer. Astonishingly, though, that didn’t seem to make any difference to anyone at Orchard House, and certainly not to our wonderful executive director, Jan Turnquist. She immediately granted me full, behind-the-ropes access to the entire house and even conducted me down to the basement to discuss the then-intended renovations of the foundation. Then she took me to lunch. She made me believe that I was just the right person to be writing Louisa’s and Bronson’s biography, and she kept on making me feel that way, straight through to publication. What a remarkable woman, I thought then, and I think so now. But what I did not realize at the time was that Jan was really just reflecting in concentrated form the incredibly generous spirit that pervades the entire organization that makes Orchard House go. It is a spirit that began with the Alcotts themselves, and, remarkably, it continues to be made manifest in those who preserve the Alcott legacy. Private person that she was, it might have taken Louisa quite a while to get used to the steady stream of admiring visitors who now make their respectful way through her father’s house. However, if she were able to see the welcoming spirit with which today’s custodians have made the house available to the public, the careful fidelity with which they preserve the authenticity of the past, and the spirit of goodness that touches everything that is done there, I think she would be deeply proud.

Now, I should freely confess that I am a world-class sap when it comes to matters like this one. I should admit that, in 2005, when my wife Michelle and daughter Rebecca took me to see the Little Women musical on Broadway, I was sobbing helplessly before the curtain went up. So I may not be the best person to consult regarding the way a person of average sensitivity approaches Orchard House. But, for whatever it may be worth, I have walked along the Lexington Road from Concord’s Town Center with an anticipation and an upwelling of emotion that is barely describable. I have felt something that is probably quite close to the sensation Emerson recalled when he wrote of being “glad to the brink of fear.” I suspect that, as you have walked that last gentle curve before the Alcott property comes into view, many of you have felt the same involuntary tightening in your throat, the same hint of moisture in the corners of your eyes. If you have, then you know just what I mean when I call Orchard House one of the most precious places on earth. If you haven’t ever felt those feelings, then I encourage you to take that walk again, sometime very soon. For unlike the ghost of Margaret Fuller, who wanders always in search of her true home, the spirits of the Alcotts are safe at home and always waiting to receive us, thanks to all the marvelous people, in 1912 and in 2012, who have made certain that they need never stray.

05 October 2014

Becoming a Steward of the Alcott Legacy

Turning the key in the front door of Orchard House each morning, the guides set about breathing life into the quiet house. They flutter through the rooms, waking up the house and turning on the lights. No two are alike: one is push-button, one turns to the right, one has a hanging cord. This is the house’s subtle charm, and the memorized movements of the ritual recalls a feeling of familiarity. Orchard House opens every morning, ready to greet visitors from around the world and to welcome them into the Alcotts’ home, a place that feels already familiar from Louisa's stories and books.

Often, the charming presentation of the house conceals the complexity of the system that supports it, and I don’t simply mean the finicky light switches or the expensive and up-to-code foundation put underneath the house in 2001. The guides give a voice to the lives of the Alcotts, of course, but many of the required roles that give Orchard House its charm and magic are tucked away from view. Many of these roles are also entirely voluntary, falling into the hands of stewards of the museum who act only out of their love and appreciation for the Alcotts and the many causes they upheld.

The gardens and landscape, for example, are lovingly tended by neighbors and volunteers, many of whom know with intimate detail which plants are possible descendants of those planted by Mr. Alcott in the nineteenth century and what varieties of apples once grew in the orchard. Culminating in the annual Fall Gardens and Grounds Clean-Up—taking place this year on November 15th—the important task of maintaining the landscape falls into the hands of these friends. Anyone who has enjoyed a picnic lunch under the shade of a tree on the lawn can appreciate their hard work and dedication.

Like the apples in the garden, stewards of the museum come in all varieties. Many of Orchard House’s most well-received events are enhanced by the presence of the Alcott Helping Hands and Hearts, a group of children who donate their weekends in December to participating in the annual Holiday Program, some of whom travel great distances to partake in the living history and make this experience more enjoyable for our guests. Their lively energy and youth—not to mention their charming singing voices—are a particular favorite during the holiday season, but they also appear at many of Orchard House’s events throughout the year. This volunteer group offers the opportunity to grow into many different roles at the museum.

Supporting this whole operation are the museum members, who introduce Orchard House to family and friends, and who make possible the continuing preservation efforts necessitated by the 300-year-old structure, which, while charming, requires regular maintenance. Becoming a member offers many benefits, including free admission to the museum and a museum shop discount, while supporting Louisa’s legacy.

Because Orchard House has been open to the public for more than 100 years, there are many who feel they have grown up at Orchard House and experienced its many stages. These stewards often return to the museum after years away, bringing myriad talents that continue to promote awareness about the Alcott family, their writings and work, and their messages about charity, equality, and creativity. These particular stewards offer their expertise in fields such as creative writing, public relations, and web design to keep the Orchard House as current as it is historic.

Stewardship is an especially pertinent and personal subject for me; I came to Orchard House as a volunteer in the garden several years ago, as a recent college graduate looking to explore different fields of work. I never imagined that the gardening I offered would blossom into a passion for the lives of the Alcott family that has influenced so much of my life. I was weeding under the lilacs one day when a visitor left the museum enthusiastically talking about the communal experiment at Brook Farm. “Where was it?” she asked her friend, who did not have an answer.

“In Roxbury, Massachusetts,” I offered, peeking out from under the tree and shaking the dirt off my gloves, and as we delved into conversation about the relationship between Brook Farm and Mr. Alcott’s Fruitlands experiment, I realized that I had an irreplaceable opportunity while surrounded by this historically rich environment. In the past several years, I have worn many hats at Orchard House (including blog-writer), and Orchard House always leaves the door open for me, offering new capacities for me to give back to the place the has given so much to so many.

This is the place I return to, the place I call home.

As a part of the documentary about Orchard House, you too have the opportunity to become a steward of this beloved place, to perpetuate a legacy that began hundreds of years ago. To call Orchard House "home." This opportunity is fully explained at our Kickstarter Campaign page and on our website.

Without an entire network of people dedicated to the support of Louisa May Alcott’s museum, including donors, volunteers, and stewards of all sizes and types, Orchard House could not be home to so many, or to show its bright face every morning to a new crowd of visitors. Through the dedication of our stewards, Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House retains its cohesiveness of vision as generations pass, preserving our history and the Alcott legacy, and opening the door for years to come.