Hundreds either have closed or are struggling to stay open in the face of dwindling interest and a lack of funding. Making them available for private purchase is a controversial solution.

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WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — The old mahogany furniture is shrouded in white dust covers, and the espaliered gardens overlooking the James River have gone to seed. Colonial Williamsburg is selling Carter’s Grove, a 18th-century Georgian mansion and one of the finest plantations in Virginia.

Colin Campbell, Williamsburg’s chairman and president, said he tried to interest other preservation groups in the property, with no luck.

And so the 400-acre riverfront residence, closed because of declining attendance and shifting priorities, will be available for private purchase at a price local agents estimate could be much more than $20 million.

“Perhaps in January,” Campbell said. “We don’t want to linger.”

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Although it will be protected by easements to prohibit subdivision, there will be no requirement that Carter’s Grove be open to the public.

The sale by Williamsburg, the country’s biggest and most prestigious living-history museum, has riveted preservationists’ attention on the plight of hundreds of other house museums across the country that have either closed or are struggling to stay open in the face of dwindling interest, diminished staff and lack of endowment dollars.

Robert E. Lee’s boyhood home in Alexandria, Va., once a “must-see” in AAA guidebooks, is back in private hands, its magnolias and elegant federal rooms visible only by virtual tour. In Odessa, Del., six important buildings owned by Winterthur, the museum of antiques collected by Henry Francis du Pont, were mothballed for several years and recently “regifted” to the family that donated them.

Escalating debate

In an escalating debate, some preservation experts argue that the best way to save the nation’s most precarious historic houses may be to sell them to those who can afford to restore them, or at least keep them up, as private residences.

“If you look around the country, this isn’t a problem, it’s the problem,” said Douglas Horne, a preservation consultant who advised Williamsburg on its decision to sell Carter’s Grove.

Between the cost of educational programs, repairs, maintenance and staffing, operating a museum is not cheap. The operation of Locust Grove, an Italianate villa in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., once owned by the inventor Samuel Morse, cost about $1.4 million this year, while admission fees generated about half of that.

Montgomery Place, the early 19th-century country home of the Livingstons in Annandale, N.Y., was shuttered last year by its owner, Historic Hudson Valley, a group founded by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who also founded Colonial Williamsburg.

Waddell Stillman, president of the Hudson group, said he was “just as much a preservationist as anyone” but thought “any smart board would consider all the alternatives to declining attendance at a house museum,” one of which might be selling it back into private hands.

At Williamsburg, visitation dropped to 710,000 last year from 1.1 million in 1985, despite two decades of investing millions of dollars to try to make the museum relevant to younger, more diverse tourists.

Historic fun or boring?

Simply put, there may be too many antique houses, with too many similarly furnished living rooms; too few docents left to show them off, and too many families taking advantage of cheaper airfares to show their children places like Versailles in France, where tourism is increasing. “Do you know why people aren’t going to most house museums?” asked Alan Neumann, a preservation architect from Rhinecliff, N.Y. “Because they’re boring.”

Despite the arguments for privatization, there is anger at Williamsburg’s decision, announced Dec. 8. Many preservationists fear that selling Carter’s Grove creates a precedent, especially because the National Trust has signed off on the sale.

The sale has “terrible ramifications for all of us in the industry,” said Raymond Armater, executive director of Locust Grove, where admissions actually rose this year.

At Williamsburg, the issue is not just money. Although this year the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation will have an operating deficit of about $36 million, it has a deep cushion: a $750 million endowment.

Campbell said the money from Carter’s Grove would go toward building a new wing at the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, estimated at $20 million.

Williamsburg is also polishing the doorknobs on an elaborate hotel and conference center, and raising the barn beams on a re-created 18th-century farm.

Campbell said Williamsburg’s focus had changed since 1964, when his foundation accepted the plantation as a gift from the Rockefellers’ Sealantic Fund.

In the future, Campbell said, the foundation’s emphasis would be on “citizenship,” with electronic field trips, DVDs and other interactive teaching aids.

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