House museums have a bad rapport in the preservation community, where creativity, adaptive reuse, and sustainability are key. The main concern: will enough people visit them to keep them running? Does anyone really like house museums? At least for the great people in American history, the answer seems to be yes. The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, for example, receives double the visitors of the nearby and perhaps more architecturally interesting Robie House. Nearby is the Hemingway House, which has inspired the names of nearby businesses and a Hemingway District.
To me, a house museum is more about the house than the museum. It’s about getting to know a place and getting a three-dimensional glimpse into history. The Hemingway birthplace in Oak Park does that better, in fact, than it teaches about Hemingway, the writer. There is a good reason for that: the Hemingway birthplace was only Hemingway’s home until he was five years old, at which point he and his family moved a few blocks away. The house tour tells the story of the house in these years, and the museum gives glimpses into his later life (I am now eager to visit his houses in Key West, Cuba, and Idaho to finish the story! The Key West house is a beauty).
The Hemingway birthplace and museum are located in Oak Park, a tree-lined Chicago suburb perhaps best known for the former home of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is one of many Queen Anne style houses in the neighborhood (another of which belonged to Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother). Hemingway reportedly referred to Oak Park as “a neighborhood of wide lawns and narrow minds,” yet the Oak Park was home to two men who helped pull America out of the Victorian era and shape the modern culture as we know it, both in novel form (Hemingway) and in houses (Wright).
The Hemingway birthplace was built in 1890 by Hemingway’s maternal grandparents. His grandfather, it is said, chose the Queen Anne style as it reflected his native England. He even moved out to Oak Park so he could have a wood frame house, something that was recently banned in Chicago due to the Great Chicago Fire. At the time, Oak Park was far displaced from the city and offered open countryside to the west.
When Hemingway was five, his grandfather died and the family moved several blocks away. Fittingly, this was there move out of the Victorian Era: they moved out of the Queen Anne style and into the style popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright that would be echoed throughout the following century, the Prairie style.
The Hemingway birthplace was acquired by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation in 1992 and subsequently restored to what it looked like in the 1890s. The restoration effort was aided both by photographs taken by Hemingway’s father, an amateur photographer, and by descriptions provided in At the Hemingways, a book written by Hemingway’s sister, Marcelline Hemingway Sanford. The nearby Hemingway boyhood home is currently privately owned and not open to the public.
Sources and Further Reading
The preservation story of the Hemingway birthplace is detailed here (see “restoring the birthplace, right side).
A brief history of the house in Oak Park can be found on the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park’s website.
Atlas Obscura has a piece on the Hemingway Birthplace and Museum, here.