In the U.S., you’ll find more house museums than McDonald’s — and that’s a good thing. A tiny category of museums is growing into a big subset in our museum culture.
Museums are traditionally grand, stoic towers housing massive art or history collections that have been around for centuries. So it might be surprising to learn that the largest category of museums is small house museums, and they outnumber traditional art museums by at least 10 to one.
House museums tend to have evolved out of someone’s home. The structure may have housed a famous artist or an important historical figure, or it may be significant simply because of its architecture.
“It happens in all sorts of ways,” says Katherine Malone-France, vice president for Historic Sites at National Trust for Historic Preservation. “When people value a place and the stories that it has to tell, becoming a historic site is one way to preserve that and to tell the stories.”
The first house museum was George Washington’s Mount Vernon, saved in 1859, but many others followed, says William Hosley, principal of Terra Firma Northeast and museologist.
While art and history museums tend to be only in big cities, house museums are spread throughout the nooks and crannies of the world.
“The buildings are often important works of architecture that house local art and artifacts,” Hosley says. “They preserve and present the cultural DNA of their communities and are a key to rekindling the much-needed sense of civic attachment.”
Currently there are more than 15,000 house museums in the United States alone — more than the number of McDonald’s restaurants.
Here is a small sampling of house museums you’ll find across the U.S.
LOCATION: Leesburg, Virginia
This home was originally owned by George Carter. His father, Robert Carter III, owned more than 5,000 slaves throughout Virginia, before he had a change of heart and began to believe that slavery was wrong. In 1791, Robert Carter III filed a Deed of Manumission that freed about 500 slaves. It was the largest private emancipation in U.S. history. However, Robert’s son George Carter didn’t share his father’s convictions. In fact, George’s family became the largest slave-owning family in Loudoun County. The house reflects his wealthy lifestyle, which was the direct result of holding people in bondage, and the mansion should be viewed from that perspective. The house museum was constructed of brick in the late Georgian and Federal style in the 1820s, when the classical revival style was in fashion. It has a two-story portico with columns and stunning plasterwork. The family donated all the contents of the house to the trust, so all the furniture is original.
LOCATION: New Canaan, Connecticut
This house museum, which is invisible from the road, is an important architectural icon. The glass house was conceived by Philip Johnson, who lived there from 1949 until 2005, and the house museum includes 14 structures, including a pool, painting gallery with a permanent art collection of outdoor sculptures by such renowned sculptors as Donald Judd and Julian Schnabel, and a landscaped property. While standing in one place in this house, you can see the sun set and the moon rise at the same time.
LOCATION: Clemson, South Carolina
This grand house museum serves as a testament of an early French Huguenot colonial structure. This was the home of Paul de St. Julien, a descendant of French Huguenots. His family’s journey to escape political and religious persecution began in 1685, when Louis XIV overturned the Edict of Nantes, which protected religious freedom. St. Julien started construction in 1714 on the three 1,000-acre tracts of land in 1688, and it was completed in 1716. For its time, Hanover was a very luxurious home, as it had a large drawing room, massive dining room, a pantry and an office.
LOCATION: Plano, Illinois
Created by the iconic modernist architect Mies van der Rohe in 1945, this house museum is recognized as a masterwork of minimalist design. There isn’t any applied decoration on the interior or exterior of the house. There are floor-to-ceiling glass walls, which keep occupants immersed in the natural environment. There aren’t any interior walls, so there aren’t any rooms. Instead, the areas of the house are defined by their uses. The house is situated along the Fox River, so Mies created an overall composition that presented a new way in which people could live in harmony with their natural environment.
LOCATION: Charleston, South Carolina
This home was owned by Nathaniel Russell, a wealthy shipping merchant and slave trader who moved in at the age of 70. He had settled in Charleston at the age of 27 in 1765, at a time when Charleston had a per capita wealth about four times that of all other American colonies. By the time Russell moved into this home, he was one of the richest men in what was the wealthiest city in the U.S. The home is an example of Neoclassical architecture in a private dwelling. The house, along with its decorative embellishments, served to advertise Russell’s success as a merchant and attracted suitors for his daughters. The house is known for having a three-story, free-flying cantilevered staircase that has no visible means of support between landings. The house, whose architect is unknown, has been described as the finest establishment in Charleston. The first two floors have been restored to their 1808 appearance.
LOCATION: Chicago, Illinois
This house museum has been featured in almost every significant book on American architecture and is regarded as one of the most important residences designed in the United States during the 19th century. The architect was Henry Hobson Richardson, called America’s first important architect, and the style of the house, Richardsonian Romanesque, was named for him. But the design of the house was very controversial in its time and wasn’t readily accepted by the neighbors. George Pullman, who lived across the street, was quoted as saying, “I don’t know what I ever did in my life to deserve having to look at that thing every day when I walk out my front door,” according to William Tyre, executive director and curator of the Glessner House. All the main rooms face south into a large private courtyard to capture the natural light, and that, along with the use of rusticated granite on the exterior, earned the home its reputation of resembling a fortress. The house museum has 35 rooms, including eight bedrooms, for a total of 17,400 square feet of history to explore.
Find historic house museums near you at The Museum Register.