Architecture Week

Why Visiting Your Local House Museum Is the Ultimate Staycation Activity

published Oct 27, 2022
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Credit: Eric Roth
Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut

On my happiest days, I am awkwardly hunching over to stretch a pair of blue shoe covers over my New Balances. I’m positively thrilled at the idea of walking through a home that people lived in 300 years ago. As I try not to fall or lean on any of the historical furniture around me, I’m also champing at the bit to see some centuries-old treasures. When a docent (typically a sweet elderly volunteer) starts shuffling their laminated photographs of the building we’re standing in, I know it’s Go Time.

These are usually how the first few minutes inside a house museum go. And if you haven’t experienced this unique delight, you must. While house museums are a real treat for history and architecture buffs like myself, they’re also a one-of-a-kind adventure for the uninitiated. 

I would bet a slightly unreasonable amount of money that there’s a house museum within a few miles of where you live. Sometimes these small, underfunded museums fly under the radar, only opening for tours on Tuesdays or Thursdays, or maybe just a few times per month. I’m not talking about the Mount Vernons and Hearst Castles of the world, but the little guys like the Captain Bangs Hallet House Museum on Cape Cod, where a docent played a tune on an extremely old piano for me and two other guests last summer.

Your new mission is to find out when your local house museum is open next and go explore it. Visiting a house museum is the ultimate staycation activity, and I’ll tell you why.

First, aside from the obvious draw — old stuff (!) — a local house museum can reveal a ton about where you live and why your town looks the way it does. If you’re from New England, you’ll likely learn about a weird rich guy who erected some statues, helped fund the building of Main Street, or brought back valuable art from his travels. 

You’ll also see some old portraits of a family who lived in your town many years ago, and if you’re like me, you’ll wonder why people don’t hang up giant paintings of themselves anymore. Maybe you’ll be introduced to Victorian art made from human hair, known as “hairwork.” Or perhaps you’ll become smitten with one artifact in particular. This happened to me on the day I was shown a “mustache cup” at the historical society in my hometown. These tiny teacups had a ledge inside them for men to rest their mustaches on (so their facial hair wouldn’t get soaked with tea, of course). It’s exactly the kind of thing you wouldn’t come across on your average Saturday, which is what makes these museums so special.

Credit: Madeline Bilis
Stained glass windows at Roseland Cottage

Beyond the fun history, there’s beauty, too. Take the original Victorian-era stained glass windows in one of my favorite house museums, Roseland Cottage in Connecticut. Or enjoy a home’s exterior to the fullest, like I do while strolling the beautiful gardens at Naumkeag, a Gilded Age mansion in Western Massachusetts.

My question for you is: What quirky (or stunning) features are hidden away in an old house not far from your own? A dumbwaiter? A butler bell system? A stop-you-in-your-tracks oil painting? A dazzling china cabinet filled with intricate dishes? A mustache cup?

There’s only one way to find out. I hope you’ll support your local historical or preservation society on your next day off — and discover something really wonderful in the process.