PARIS — Learning can be fun and interactive and museums don’t have to be serious and stuffy – which is the mantra recently adopted by McLaughlin Garden and Homestead’s Board of Directors.
To coincide with this new vision, the Curtis House on Main Street in Paris – which has sat quiet and vacant for several years – will soon see a flurry of activity as the beginning stages of the organization’s master plan gets underway.
The nonprofit’s Executive Director Donna Anderson said over the winter, the board of directors and staff worked on details of the master plan to integrate the two sites that sit side by side on roughly 6 acres of the town’s main drag.
“Every single inch of that space is going to be important to us,” she said.
They also simplified the organization’s mission.
“The board has embraced a new level of fun. … Museums tend to … take themselves really seriously, which is understandable. … History is another thing you can take way too seriously,” Anderson said from inside the historic homestead of the late Bernard McLaughlin recently.
“I think what we have come to understand is the power of fun and learning. People want to have something that makes them feel like their day or their time … kind of feeds the soul.”
The idea is to preserve and develop the site into one location, but also further engage the community along the way and in the future.
Next door, the Curtis House – which was purchased by the nonprofit in 2013 – is slated to become an education center. And Anderson believes this site is the perfect fit as the front of the building – the cape – was built in 1815 as a school house on Elm Hill. It was moved down to Main Street as a residence in 1840, she said.
“In 1815, the whole public school experience was just finding its feet,” Anderson said. “The idea that there’s a dedicated school house so early for students is quite fun.”
As the directors and Anderson hammered out details to the master plan, the ell of the Curtis House flooded in early March because of frozen pipes, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Anderson said the ell “was essentially a wood shed … that was never built to be permanent.” It was converted into a kitchen, bathroom and later a real estate office during the 1960s.
“In a way the flood was fortunate because we did get a chance to look at the history of the ell and problems,” she said.
Architects have determined there is no historical significance to the structure and from an insurance point of view, there’s too much damage to fix it. Anderson expects demolition of the ell to get going within the next month or so.
“There is nothing like demolition to get people’s attention,” she said. “When people see demolition, they see destruction but really it’s the first part of the creative process.”
Anderson is waiting to hearing from the architects on what it will take to preserve the rest of the house and the barn, where they found a surprise – large, late 18th century timber posts, which do have historical significance.
“What we have to do is to stabilize the cape and stabilize the barn,” she added. “The barn timbers become something really special for us.”
Part of the master plan that’s slated for implementation this season include expanding the pumpkin patch behind the Curtis House, which provides some of the gourds for carving during the garden’s annual Jack O’Lantern Spectacular.
Directors, staff and volunteers plan “to experiment with a few fun children’s activities,” which includes storybook garden experiences where children can walk through the landscape that has been integrated with children’s literature.
“We’re going to be balancing preservation with activity,” Anderson said. “The spirit of Bernard is going to be expanded to incorporate these new creative ideas and there are no end to these creative ideas. And some of them actually could relate to not just horticulture, but history and the environment.”
Other components of the master plan include erecting a historic greenhouse that is open year-round, creating a larger meeting space at the Curtis House and eventually opening a small cafe on the site.
“[This] would allow people to stay here for a while but really not compete with the other businesses. We want to be the place that adds to the vitality of the community without diminishing anyone else’s business,” Anderson said about the future cafe.
The goal of the nonprofit isn’t to just preserve physical items and historical sites, but oral history as well. To help with that, the organization was awarded a $3,500 grant from the Maine Humanities Council.
Anderson said she’s reaching out to Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School to offer summer internships at the garden to train people on how to record oral history. First on the docket is interviewing people who had direct experiences with Bernard, who died at age 98 in 1995, according to the garden’s website.
Other topics to be explored include the site and how it relates to others in the community, women in rural Maine, children who grew up in McLaughlin’s house before he turned it into a public garden, how people cope during economic down times and many more.
Anderson wants to develop new exhibits, both physical and digital, which includes updating the website. She also hopes in the future the site can be home to visiting exhibits that could be shared with area historical societies.
Let it begin
Opening day for the 2016 season is Friday, May 6. This is National Public Gardens Day and it kicks off the garden’s Wildflower Festival. There will be a wildflower presentation, scavenger hunt, chores and Chewonki will bring its bugmobile with various specimens and explain how bugs pollinate.
For more information, visit www.mclaughlingarden.org/home.html, call 743-8820 or stop by the garden at 97 Main St., Paris.