Law says historic Kennard House should be maintained as ‘statehood memorial,’ but is it happening?
History Nebraska director says law is ‘pretty broad,’ while former employee urges refurnishing of home
The Kennard House, built for Nebraska’s first secretary of state, was designated in law as a “statehood memorial” in 1965. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Built in 1869, the stately Kennard House was intended as a show of confidence in the selection of Lincoln as the capital of the then-2-year-old state of Nebraska.
It was one of three brick homes built for the three members of a commission that picked Lincoln over Omaha as the seat of government for the fledgling prairie state.
Now the home, a half block from the State Capitol, is closed and nearly empty. A couple of hallway lights remain on, attesting that the power is not turned off.
It’s sparking a debate about whether the 2½-story brick home is being maintained as required by a law passed after the state bought the old home in 1961, saving it from demolition.
The law designated the house as the “Nebraska Statehood Memorial.” It states that the state historical society, now History Nebraska, must restore the exterior and interior “as nearly as may be” to its original appearance and furnish it “with authentic period furniture and other materials which relate to the establishment and development of Nebraska state government.”
Gail DeBuse Potter, a longtime, former employee of the state historical society, looks sadly at the Kennard House today and sees not a state monument, but an empty shell, where much of the furnishings, books and other historic items have been moved away or sold off.
Urged to put it ‘back together’
The structure, which used to be decorated for open houses at Christmas and open regularly for visitors, has been closed for months, and it appears more like a vacant building than a memorial to Nebraska’s statehood.
“The law says they have to do one thing, and they’re not doing it,” said DeBuse Potter, who has been asking History Nebraska to put the house “back together.”
But Jill Dolberg, the interim executive director of the history agency, sees something else of the Kennard House — a little-visited “house museum” and a relic of olden times that needs a greater purpose.
History Nebraska has pitched an ambitious plan to add a $2.3 million kitchen/reception area/elevator addition to the Kennard House and repurpose it as a place for meetings and wedding receptions and for teaching school children about civic engagement.
Some period furniture would remain, but it would be the kind that visitors could sit on, and not be roped off for viewing only, she said. The home would be made more handicapped-accessible, and a back dining room/kitchen wing of the Kennard House that had been torn down years ago would be resurrected.
Seeking ‘innovative’ new mission
“It has a great history, and maybe a great future,” Dolberg said. “We’re trying to find a way to use it in an innovative way that fulfills the mission of maintaining it as a statehood memorial.”
She said the search for private funding for the Kennard House renovation might begin this fall, given that History Nebraska doesn’t have existing funds to do it.
Money from the State Legislature is not expected.
State Sen. Rob Clements of Elmwood, a history lover who heads the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said the senators were given a tour of the Kennard House a couple of years ago by then-director Trevor Jones, who had a new vision for the facility.
Members came away unconvinced that the state needed to invest in such a project, said Clements, who classified the project as a “want” rather than a priority state “need.”
“They’ve got some financial situations to work out,” Clements said of History Nebraska. He cited a $270,000 donation from the State Historical Society Foundation that was allegedly misappropriated by Jones, leading to a harsh state audit report and, ultimately, with Jones being charged with felony theft by deception.
Agency has ‘lost trust’
“(History Nebraska) has lost trust with the Legislature somewhat, I would say,” Clements said. “The direction that they’re going, I’m not sure it aligns with what we want to see them doing.”
So it appears a refurnishing or repurposing of the home will hinge on whether private donors step forward, and whether History Nebraska ends up managing an adjacent historic mansion with more space for meetings and presentations.
The Kennard House, at 1627 H St., has an interesting history.
It is the last survivor of three similar dwellings designed by Chicago architect John Keys Winchell for the commissioners who chose Lincoln as the state capital, according to the 1968 nomination that led to its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
Thomas Kennard was Nebraska’s first secretary of state, and the three “showplaces” contrasted with the more modest homes that existed in Lincoln at the time.
But Kennard sold the house in 1887. It reportedly served a variety of functions, from a boarding house to a home for boys, until 1960, when it was slated for demolition.
Schoolchildren saved it
That’s when students from a nearby school, McPhee Elementary, mounted a successful campaign to save it.
The Kennard House was purchased by the state in 1961, and four years later, the state law was passed naming it the Statehood Memorial, due to its connection with the early days of Nebraska. It is said to be the last remaining home from Lincoln’s original plat in 1867.
The house was furnished with items related to “leading state officials” — the library of former Gov. Albinus Nance was among them — and, at one time, it had a full-time staff that gave tours and set up programs and open house events.
We’re trying to find a way to use it in an innovative way that fulfills the mission of maintaining it as a statehood memorial.
– Jill Dolberg, interim executive director of History Nebraska
DeBuse Potter, who was a senior museum curator for the historical society before serving several years as director of the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, said the state has plenty of house museums, and the key is to make an effort to create programs there.
She said she has serious concern about how History Nebraska has disposed of items in recent months, including a unique “square” piano and a library that were on display within the Kennard House.
The “deaccession” of historic items, she said, was often done almost entirely without looking at them or handling, them. She said some of the items were sold or given away. At Fort Robinson, near where DeBuse Potter used to live, many items were hauled to a local landfill, she said.
Furnishings sold, given away, put in storage
She has appeared before History Nebraska’s Board of Trustees at least twice in recent months, asking the board to either comply with state law and refurnish the Kennard House, or change the state statute.
Until they change the law governing the home, DeBuse Potter said, they should stop dismantling it.
Right next door to the Kennard House is another historic structure, the Ferguson House.
That 112-year-old mansion, originally the home of a wealthy Lincoln businessman, was vacated by the Nebraska Environmental Trust at the end of June, ending nearly a decade of using the structure as its offices.
State officials are open to offers from other state agencies to utilize the building, which by law cannot be sold, according to Brent Flachsbart, administrator of the State Building Division.
It’s not exactly empty, Flachsbart said — the Nebraska Commission on Problem Gambling still rents a small office in the building.
He said the state is in talks with History Nebraska about taking over the rest of the Ferguson House, but nothing has been decided.
The Trust, which has been criticized in recent years for not granting out all the funds it gets from the State Lottery, moved into new offices in Lincoln’s Telegraph District.
The new space rents for $5,773.66 a month, according to state records. The Trust also set aside $173,000 over the next two years to cover upkeep of the Ferguson House.
History Nebraska, DeBuse Potter said, needs to halt the deaccession effort — a job she used to lead when she worked for the historical society — and review its process.
Dolberg defended the effort to clear out items, saying it was part of a new museum collections plan adopted three years ago when Jones was History Nebraska director.
“You have to re-evaluate these things every so often,” she said.
Items not that significant
The items sent to the landfill from Fort Robinson were “damaged beyond repair,” Dolberg said, and were covered in bat feces after years of what she called “improper storage.”
As far as changing state law, she said she didn’t think that was necessary, describing the law as “pretty broad.”
People can disagree on what’s historically important and what’s not, she said, but in her opinion, there were items in the Kennard House that were not that significant in telling the story of statehood.
Some of the larger pieces of bedroom furniture, Dolberg said, went to other museums where they are more appropriately displayed, while some items were put in temperature-controlled storage.
A majority vote of the “Collections Committee,” composed of History Nebraska employees, is required before an item is deaccessed, according to the agency’s collections management policy approved in 2020.
The policy gives priority to donating such items to other museums or individuals, but also allows for sale or destruction.
Dolberg said she hopes to begin seeking donations for the Kennard House project in the next few months and was encouraged by the interest she got after she mentioned the repurposing at a recent exhibit opening at the State History Museum in Lincoln.
Ferguson House might change plans
One thing that might “change the landscape,” Dolberg said, is what’s to become of the adjacent Ferguson House, a more than century-old mansion that was recently vacated by the Nebraska Environmental Trust.
The Ferguson House had, until recent years, been rented out for wedding receptions, mystery dinners, graduation parties and legislative receptions. It has meeting rooms, a large kitchen and a ballroom — amenities lacking in the Kennard House.
History Nebraska at one time managed the Ferguson House, and Dolberg said the agency has been approached about taking it over. The house also has accessibility issues for the handicapped, she said.
But for now, the director said, the focus is on finding a new purpose for the Kennard House, one that needs to include greater visitation and use.
“It just kind of needs people in and out of it in a more regular way. I don’t think buildings do so well without that,” Dolberg said.
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