Rachel Carson homestead to get a whole new look

House items to be auctioned June 11

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The Springdale Borough house in which environmental icon Rachel Carson grew up is filled with antiques and items that harken back to an era almost 100 years ago.

That's part of the problem.

The Rachel Carson Homestead Association is changing the property's focus to one of vision, creating a museum reflecting Carson's influence and impact on the world today -- and the future.

"Right now, this house shows what it might have been like when Rachel Carson lived here," Joy Braunstein, association executive director, said Friday during a tour of the historic homestead. "We're not interested in that anymore."

Next month, after an auction of the antiques that fill the home, the building will be closed for a year, during which it will undergo extensive renovation, ideally reducing the structure to the original four-room house it was a century ago.

Carson was born on her family's 65-acre farm near the Allegheny River in Springdale Borough in 1907. A marine biologist and author of the groundbreaking book, "Silent Spring," which discussed the hazards of pesticides, she inspired the modern environmental movement before her death in 1964.

Today, the house stands on less than an acre of wooded property on Marion Avenue, tucked into a residential neighborhood. Since 1975, the association has provided tours reflecting Carson's roots.

But association board members found the presentation lacking and hired Ms. Braunstein in March to guide it to what they consider to be a greater potential.

The exterior of the house, which is listed with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks, will appear as it might have when Carson lived there before 1927. But inside will be modern whitewall galleries with exhibits dealing with her life and legacy.

"We'll have exhibits that evoke what she means and why she was important," Ms. Braunstein said. "These antiques do not do that justice."

In fact, there isn't evidence that many of the antiques have any connection with Carson at all. They've simply been collected over the years and added to invoke a sense of atmosphere.

There's a 48-star American flag. An antique lamp is from the 1940s. The family Bible on the bureau dates back to 1889, but it isn't the Carson family Bible. It isn't even the Carsons' religion.

The microscope is akin to one Carson might have used. The wooden bed is from Chatham College, where Carson lived in a dormitory, but there's no reason to think it was hers.

"There is a framed piece of fan coral that they know she collected," Ms. Braunstein said. "We're not selling that."

Most everything else -- including a turn-of-the-last-century Steinway & Sons box grand piano -- will be auctioned off June 11, with proceeds paying for the renovations. Ms. Braunstein said the association hoped to raise more than $5,000, not counting what the piano fetches.

Once the auction is over, the homestead will be closed and the association offices will move off-site.

A year from now --when the association marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of "Silent Spring" -- the property will reopen. Ms. Braunstein said the goal was to have an off-site center, where visitors can experience an orientation and view a video about Carson and her work. They then would be transported to the homestead museum.

A decision on the appearance of the surrounding property has not been made, Ms. Braunstein said. The association is still considering alternatives and will be seeking input from its 500-plus members as well as community leaders.

The intent is to have a museum that will enrich the experience of everyone who visits, whether they be tourists from around the world or schoolchildren from up the road.

"We feel the more reflective the experience, the more it will work as a museum," Ms. Braunstein said. "The more it is recognized as a museum, the more visitors there will be, and it will be more of an asset, which will assure its protection into perpetuity."

A silent auction, featuring some special items -- such as first-edition copies of "Silent Spring" -- will be held for association members the evening of June 4. Members of the public can participate in that event for a $15 fee.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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