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Budget cuts to close state historic sites
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The James J. Hill House on Summit Ave. in St. Paul will close to the public July 1, as a result of state budget cuts. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
The Minnesota Historical Society will close seven of its 27 historical sites and lay off nearly one-third of its staff due to state budget cuts. The society will lose $8 million in state funding over the next two years. The sites, around the state, will be closed to the public, but will still be maintained.

St. Paul, Minn. — The James J. Hill House is the largest mansion on St. Paul's historic Summit Ave. Completed in 1891 for railroad tycoon James J. Hill, the 36,000 sq. ft. home contains five floors, 13 bathrooms and 22 fireplaces.

The Historical Society acquired the house in 1978. Each year about 45,000 people tour the mammoth home. However, the doors will soon be closed to the public.

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Image Oliver H. Kelley Farm

"We have an important story to tell here at the Hill House," says Sue Fair, the assistant site manager for the Hill House.

Fair says the house is a gathering place for chamber music concerts, neighborhood group meetings and holiday events. Fair says the house also has educational value. She says it's an example of the cultural and technological standards of the 19th century.

"Another revelation for most school children and many adults is the new technology that came to this house in 1891," says Fair. "It was the first complete system of electric lighting in the city, and the Hills were very innovative in their use of technology."

Fair says the House operates on a $500,000 annual budget, while generating about $200,000 in revenue. The deficit is made up by state funding. Historical Society administrators are working on what they call a "mothball plan" to determine how they will continue to maintain the house.

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Image The Comstock House in Moorhead

The Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River, Fort Ridgely near Fairfax, Grand Mound near International Falls, the Lower Sioux Agency near Redwood Falls, Historic Forestville near Preston and Comstock House in Moorhead are also scheduled to close.

The Comstock House was built in 1886 by Solomon Comstock.

"Solomon Comstock was an early mover and shaker in the community," says Mark Piehl, the archivist at the Clay County Historical Society in Moorhead.

Piehl says Comstock helped establish the First National Bank and Moorhead State University. Comstock was also a colleague of James J. Hill and helped him build a railroad system in the Red River Valley. Comstock's daughter Ada was the first dean of women at the University of Minnesota.

Piehl says he understands that the state has to make cuts, but he says he's disappointed this landmark will close its doors.

"My understanding is that is doesn't cost that much to keep the place open. I'm not sure how much money the state will be saving by closing it," says Piehl. "Most of the costs associated with the house are apparently maintenance and upkeep, and those will be ongoing costs whether the place is open or not."

I think what people will miss about not being able to visit these sites is the experience of being in a place where history happened. There is nothing like it.
- Nina Archabal, director of the Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota Historical Society director Nina Archabal says it's difficult to determine how much money will be saved by closing the sites. She says adding up the operating budgets for each site doesn't give the whole story, because much of the work for the exhibits at each site is done at the headquarters in St. Paul.

Archabal says the process of selecting sites for closure was a painful one, taking into account several factors.

"What we did was try to look at what the visitation was -- that is, how many people visit these sites," Archabal says. "Whether there had been recent large investment of either public or private dollars. (There was) some effort to try to not concentrate all the reductions in one area of the state."

Archabal says she's hopeful the funding for the Historical Society will be restored someday when the state's budget woes subside. But she says until then, Minnesotans will miss out on a valuable experience.

"I think what people will miss about not being able to visit these sites is the experience of being in a place where history happened. There is nothing like it," says Archabal. "Reading about it in a book is great, visiting a museum is terrific, but being in the place where something happened really turns the imagination loose."

Archabal says she's willing to talk with any public official or donor who wants to help keep sites open. However, barring a large windfall, the sites will begin closing on July 1.

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