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Always plenty to do for staff at Gaineswood

Passersby glancing at Gaineswood, the National Historic Landmark and 19th-century house museum on Demopolis’s Cedar Avenue, might wonder how anyone working there could stay busy during the winter months. According to the people who keep Gaineswood in museum-quality condition, however, it’s more of a problem to stay on top of things.

“We want people who come to Gaineswood to feel like they’re visiting an old friend’s house,” said Minette Henson, assistant Site Director for Gaineswood. And just as it would for any homeowner cleaning and preparing in advance of a visit from an old friend, “it takes a lot of effort,” said Henson.

There’s even more effort on rainy days like Tuesday, when the possibility of leaks send Site Director Matt Hartzell and Grounds and Maintenance manager Rick Rand on a detailed examination of every inch of Gaineswood’s ceiling. “We have to take flashlights and check everything closely,” said Hartzell. “It’s something we obviously have to keep an eye on. Even if we’re not open, if there’s rain, we have to come in, whatever the day is, to check.”

For a museum like Gaineswood, leak control even goes beyond just identification and repair. “Every incident here has to be photographed,” said Hartzell. “It’s required by the Alabama Historical Commission that we identify these areas and keep documentation of them. That information can then be passed on to the Commission and construction companies during our upcoming restoration project.”

Because of the dangers of humidity as well as the actual rain, that kind of time-consuming vigilance is necessary to make the restoration a success and preserve Gaineswood’s many pieces of period-authentic furniture.

“Humidity is, of course, a major factor in the Southeast,” said Hartzell. “If our furniture gets humid in a hurry and dries out in a hurry, that’s when you get major problems, like cracking.”

To protect the home against those problems, Hartzell monitors the moisture levels on a daily basis. “We have 2 devices right now to help monitor humidity,” he said. “I check their readings and compare them to the outdoor readings from weather.com. I obviously can’t change the humidity outside, but we can take steps [such as controlling air circulation] to make it fairly consistent inside the home.”

Hurricane Ivan was, obviously, a major headache for the Gaineswood staff. “I was running around with my camera like a chicken with my head cut off,” said Hartzell with a laugh.

But even when not fending off the dangers of rainstorms or hurricanes, the Gaineswood staff has plenty to do, starting with the rigorous task of housekeeping in a house that’s 150 years old. Thanks to national museum guidelines, “it’s a whole different method of housekeeping,” according to Henson. That method includes the use of special gloves and special chemicals when cleaning surfaces, expensive acid-free paper for the storage of books and documents, and even a custom-designed vacuuming system for the rugs.

“When we need to vacuum, we don’t just pull out a Hoover and go at it,” said Hartzell. Instead, the rugs are vacuumed one square stretch at a time, using a small protective screen laid out bit-by-bit for a specially-designed vacuum.

The educational (or, as Hartzell refers to it, “interpretive”) aspects of Gaineswood occupy much of the remainder of the staff’s time. Gaineswood hosts four “major programs” a year according to Hartzell, each of which can take months to prepare for. If that seems excessive, consider that according to Hartzell, during Heritage Appreciation Days more than 450 students “from all over the Black Belt” will be visiting the property over the course of only two days.

Another point of emphasis, according to Henson, is research on the house’s objects and history. “We have to be ready for questions about almost anything, to have the details people want to know about. Take the epergne, for instance,” she says, referring to an ornate table centerpiece (pronounced “ay-pairn”). “We’ve had a few people ask us who the three ladies carved into it are. It’s our job to be able to say ‘That’s the three Graces’ and explain who they are.”

Of course, some jobs at Gaineswood are more straightforward than studying the epergne, and that’s where Rand comes in. The Gaineswood property’s four-plus acres, including elaborate gardens and plantings, require consistent attention from Rand’s expertise in grounds maintenance. According to Hartzell, it’s not a bit less important than the work that goes on inside. “The first impression visitors form of Gaineswood comes from the grounds themselves,” he says. “And the first person they come in contact with is often Rick. He does a great job for us.”

Although there aren’t as many of those visitors as Hartzell might like, he’s proud that attendance has held steady for “the last 7 to 8 years” and that the visitors who do come “are often surprised we take so much time with them,” he says.

“The visitors are what keeps us going,” he says. “I’ve been to museum conferences where people hear our numbers and kind of laugh, but we prefer being able to give our tours at a slower, more intimate pace. We can engage our visitors in conversation and let them ask all the questions they want. You’re not just herded through the way you are at a lot of museums. We’re proud that at Gaineswood you really can leave with a good appreciation of the house and its history.”