Fortunately for Americans, some of the nation’s wealthiest and most prolific industrialists and business tycoons shared a passion for preservation—investing their riches and influence in developing places that people can visit to enjoy and learn about history. Here are four such places open to the public:
Preserving industrial history
The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Mich.
Unimpressed by history conveyed in static textbooks, the man who created the first reliable, affordable automobile—and the assembly line process that revolutionized manufacturing—sought to preserve the story of American ingenuity through a sprawling indoor-outdoor attraction known today as The Henry Ford.
Initially called The Edison Institute, the former school opened to the public as a museum in 1933. Located in Dearborn, where Ford grew up on a family farm and developed an early interest in mechanical things, the endeavor sprang out of the wealthy industrialist’s own private collection of practical inventions such as farm implements and tools.
Today, the expanded complex showcases both America’s rural lifestyle at the turn of the 20th century and the innovations that transformed the nation into an industrial giant. The attraction is anchored by the Henry Ford Museum, which features a “Driving America” exhibit that includes Ford’s historic Model T, the first Ford Mustang to roll off the assembly line in 1964, and more than a hundred other notable automotive models. Other exhibits pay tribute to innovations such as home appliances, industrial machines, steam engines and locomotives dating to the mid-1800s.
Adjacent to the museum, Ford developed Greenfield Village, an 80-acre living history museum that includes more than 80 restored buildings, many relocated from their original sites. In addition to early machine shops, a post office, gristmill and courthouse, Ford preserved buildings where resourceful Americans lived and worked, such as the laboratory of inventor Thomas Edison, the cycle shop where the Wright Brothers developed the first working airplane, and the homes of authors Noah Webster and Robert Frost, as well as a replica of Ford’s first factory.
“We are a collecting museum,” says Patricia Mooradian, president of The Henry Ford. “We still acquire things that tell the story of America’s innovations, ingenuity and resourcefulness.”
Preserving Colonial history
Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Va.
The Colonial village that was the capital of England’s oldest, largest and richest colony from 1699 to 1780 had nearly disappeared under a century of modernization when businessman and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. first visited the town in 1926 with his wife and five sons.
Rockefeller saw that the dirt streets once walked by George Washington and Patrick Henry had nearly disappeared under concrete, electrical wires and billboards. A high school had been built on the site of the Governor’s Palace, where the king’s representative lived and which burned to the ground in 1781, and historical buildings had been remodeled to the point that their Colonial features were nearly unrecognizable. Townspeople had dreamed of restoring Williamsburg, but the task seemed too ambitious—until a town rector named the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin convinced the son of Standard Oil Co. founder John Rockefeller of the village’s historic value.
Wanting to use his vast fortune for philanthropic purposes, John Rockefeller Jr. envisioned a restored Williamsburg as a living monument to our nation’s beginnings. His initial plan to save a few buildings grew into a $56 million, 40-year project that restored 85 percent of the town’s original area.
“He was very much hands on,” says Colin Campbell, president, CEO and chairman of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the village’s nonprofit manager, referring to Rockefeller’s biannual visits with his wife, Abby.
Today, Colonial Williamsburg includes 300 acres, three museums, the John D. Rockefeller Library, 88 original buildings and hundreds of residences, churches and shops reconstructed on their former foundations. It features the Capitol where Virginia legislators debated declaring independence from England, a rebuilt Governor’s Palace, the refurbished Raleigh Tavern where Thomas Jefferson ate and danced, and dozens of costumed re-enactors and tradesmen.
“We want visitors first to see what an 18th-century community was like,” Campbell says. “We want them to know this was a place where people were transformed from being subjects of a country across the ocean to being citizens of a democratic republic.”
Preserving horticulture and decorative arts
Winterthur Garden, Library and Museum Wilmington, Del.
Henry Francis du Pont’s country estate was the center of his life. He was born there in 1880 and developed a love for nature while playing on its grounds as a boy. Passionate about horticulture and American furniture and decorative arts, he used his family’s industrial fortune to transform the estate’s expansive acreage into the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, sharing his lifelong interests with the world.
Comprising 2,500 acres as a working farm during the late 1920s, the estate today is a nonprofit educational entity that covers nearly 1,000 acres.
“Winterthur has a 60-acre garden that’s one of the oldest surviving wild gardens in the world,” says estate historian Maggie Lidz, “and a 175-room house filled with the best collection of American decorative arts in the world.”
Beginning in 1902, du Pont planned his naturalistic garden so its thousands of plants appeared to bloom randomly from January to November in vibrant color combinations.
Du Pont was equally passionate about indoor beauty. An avid antique collector, he discovered the simpler styles of American arts and crafts, eventually acquiring 60,000 items of furniture, quilts, metal ware and glassware dating from the 1600s to 1800s. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy visited Winterthur in 1961 and invited du Pont, by then considered the nation’s foremost authority on Americana and historical furnishings, to chair the fine arts committee overseeing her indoor restoration of the White House.
Intent on sharing his vast personal collection with the public, du Pont remodeled and expanded his ancestral home into a 175-room museum. Open since 1951, the museum displays rooms decorated in styles ranging from the elegant dining room used by du Pont himself to the simple furnishings of a Shaker dwelling room.
The Getty, Los Angeles and Malibu, Calif.
When billionaire J. Paul Getty died in 1976, the art world was stunned by his astonishing gift left to the J. Paul Getty Museum.
“No one had any idea he intended to leave the majority of his fortune to the museum,” says Nancy Enneking, head of instructional records and archives at The Getty, which exhibits drawings, paintings, photographs, sculptures and other visual art at two museum locations that are open and free to the public.
Interested in French decorative arts, antiquities and European paintings, Getty viewed art as “a civilizing influence in society,” and he regularly opened his Malibu home beginning in 1954 as the first J. Paul Getty Museum. When the collection outgrew his ranch house, he built a separate building patterned after a Roman villa with an open courtyard, reflecting pool and gardens. Open since 1974, The Getty Villa today houses 28 galleries of Getty’s Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. A second larger museum branch opened in 1997 in Los Angeles and displays artwork and manuscripts, as well as offering hilltop views of Los Angeles.
The museum received billions of dollars from Getty’s estate based on brief instructions in his will that the money go for “the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge.”
“One of the best things he did was to leave the estate with so few stipulations,” says Enneking about the freedom the trustees have to promote art. Besides overseeing the museum, The Getty Trust supports worldwide art research, conservation and educational efforts.