The 93-year-old Lord Mansion in Olympia’s South Capitol neighborhood is getting a makeover with fresh paint, refinished hardwood floors, new carpet and other renovations.
But the State Capital Museum that occupied the mansion for more than 70 years is officially history.
The museum closed for repairs in April 2014. It was meant to be a temporary closure, but the renovations turned out to be more costly and took longer than expected, according to Erich Ebel, marketing and communications director for the Washington State Historical Society. In addition to a roof repair and a retrofit for earthquake safety, the stucco mission revival mansion’s cloth wiring had to be replaced with a modern electrical system.
So Historical Society director Jennifer Kilmer said her agency will work with a property management firm during the next few months to find a tenant for the 12,525-square-foot building.
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“We’re going to be looking for tenants that match with the feeling and the character of the neighborhood,” Kilmer told The Olympian this week.
The elegant home was built in 1923 for banker Clarence J. Lord and his wife, Elizabeth Lord. It was donated to the state by Elizabeth Lord and her daughter, Helen Lord Lucas, in 1937 and opened as a museum on March 5, 1942.
“The structure itself was not specifically deeded to be a museum,” Ebel said. “It was deeded for public use and how the wording read, everybody said, ‘Well, let’s make it a museum’ and it’s been a museum for so long that everybody assumed that’s the purpose it was given to the state for, but that’s not exactly the case.”
The State Capital Museum merged with the Historical Society in 1993. The museum’s exhibits were primarily focused on the history of Olympia becoming the state capital.
The Lord Mansion was built with leaded windows, ornate fixtures and a grand staircase. But it doesn’t meet modern museum standards.
“It’s an old drafty house,” Ebel said. “So you can’t keep things in it that are going to require atmospheric and environmental stability.”
Over the years, the building’s design led to changes in the types of exhibits that were kept at the museum. Most of the displays were panels with photos with explanatory text, according to Ebel.
“We have not held collections at that museum for many, many years,” Kilmer said.
Add state budget cuts to the mix, and eventually the State Capital Museum was only open on Saturdays. It had 2,500 visitors during its last year of operation.
“In museum numbers, that was a pretty small amount,” Ebel said.
The Historical Society recently held a “stakeholder” meeting with people who live in the South Capitol neighborhood, as well as those who are involved in local and state history efforts, Kilmer said. About 40 people attended.
South Capitol resident Kris Tucker said she spoke at the meeting about the mansion’s legacy and the importance of preserving it.
“It is state-owned and it’s in our community and it’s something we really need to take care of, really be good stewards of,” she said.
Chuck Fowler, who was on the State Capital Museum’s board for many years, said he and other local history supporters already have begun looking at ways to build a new museum in Olympia that could fill part of the gap left by the closure of the State Capital Museum.
“This was not a surprise to us — this had been in the works for a long time,” Fowler said of the permanent closure. “… We can have nostalgia about that, but we’ve got to get busy. This is the way it’s going to be. This is the new reality and we’ve got to get on planning and building a new Olympia history museum.”
The Historical Society also has reached out to other state agencies to find other ways to continue sharing Olympia’s prominent role in Washington state history.
“It’s the intention of the Historical Society to pursue the types of exhibits that were here, about state capital history, government history, legislative history, and to try to reproduce that over in the state Capitol building itself,” Ebel said.