Politics & Government

Lawmakers look at closing State Capital Museum

At 92 years old, the Lord Mansion may soon have to learn a new line of work.

The house in Olympia’s South Capitol Neighborhood has served as a state-run museum for the majority of its long life. But the house now known as the State Capital Museum has been closed for a year for repairs, and even when it was open, state budget cuts had reduced visiting hours to one day a week.

Now the Legislature is considering closing the museum for good.

The budget proposal state House Democrats released last week would order the closure as a fraction of its solution for fully funding unmet needs of schools. A competing budget Senate Republicans released Tuesday is silent on the museum.

The House plan would transfer the building to the state’s landlord agency July 1, which could rent it to other state agencies or to private parties.

It’s a sad turn of events for “a grand old building,” historian David Nicandri of Tumwater said.

“It’s a significant piece of architecture in this town,” Nicandri said, that “would be on any A-list of significant works.”

Nicandri knows well the challenges of keeping the mansion as a museum, however. Until his retirement in 2011, he led the Washington State Historical Society, which operates the facility. Nicandri oversaw the movement of the capital museum’s collection of artifacts to the society’s then-new Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

The historical society can’t keep artifacts in the mansion because it doesn’t meet standards of constant temperature and humidity required of accredited museums, said Jennifer Kilmer, who directs the historical society today. Instead, the museum supplemented the home’s architectural features with panel exhibits showing text and pictures.

“Because of the limitations that we have in the building, it has been very difficult to operate it as an effective museum,” Kilmer said.

That’s why the historical society offered up the capital museum as a possible budget cut when asked for options.

Lectures and workshops that have been held there could find other places in the area to be staged, Kilmer said.

Banker Clarence Lord hired Olympia architect Joseph Wohleb to design the home, built in 1923 in the style of a Spanish Colonial villa, according to the historical society.

After his death, Lord’s widow, Elizabeth, and daughter, Helen Lord Lucas, donated the house to the state and suggested it become a museum, which opened in 1942.

“People in Olympia would be delighted if the museum could be retained and kept open for regular opening hours,” said Mark Foutch, president of the Olympia Historical Society and Bigelow House Museum. “On the other hand, we’ve been watching the state budget issues and can fully understand the need,” he said.

The place is a museum of local history as well as the state’s, Foutch said: “The capital’s history is our history, too.”