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Musings From the Dungeon

by Gwendolen Raley on

As I sit here in my office enveloped in the manufactured warmth from an unreliable space heater, the temperature outside is 12º F (wind chill = 1º). It appears we’re experiencing a heat wave! For the last few weeks, Indianapolis, IN, has experienced daytime temperatures in negative double digits with bitingly cold wind chills.

I’m holed up in the basement office (lovingly called “the dungeon,” even by staff who don’t actually work in it) of a three-story historic house built in 1865. This room is the warmest place in the entire house! The weather has been extremely cold, and I have wondered how this old house is faring.

pleaseholdcover

Ok, I just checked (thanks for holding). The ol’ gal seems fine, just a bit drafty. My fingers are numb.

Climate control in a historic house is always a constant challenge, and extreme shifts in temperature and humidity exacerbate the challenge. We monitor the thermostats and humidity as best we can, but in an old house retrofitted with HVAC, our methods are a bit archaic.

Each winter, I know when the temperature has dropped because I am welcomed upon my morning arrival by the unmistakable stench of death. Critters find their way into our elevator shaft and never leave. One winter I got the opportunity to don rubber gloves and a respirator to scoop a deceased, decaying rat from the bottom of the elevator shaft.

Such is life in as a member of a two person staff in a historic house. When there is so much to do—and only two of you to do it—you wind up doing a lot of work that falls under the category “other duties as assigned.” On any given day, I am drafting a strategic plan, working with maintenance to address the latest leak or plaster cracks, paying bills, leading a tour, scooping up dead animals from the elevator shaft, training volunteers, ciphering through artifacts for deaccessioning, answering the phone, brewing tea for an event, and the list goes on and on. In sum, the work never ends.

I am fortunate to have a wonderful coworker who understands the craziness of the daily grind and who is also willing to scoop petrified bats out from under furniture, plan engaging programs for the public, answer the phone, and haul trashcans full of gardening debris away on Garden Day Tuesdays.

Even though I write this from “the dungeon,” I can look out the tiny window with bars near the ceiling and see a snippet of blue sky. It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood!

The view from the dungeon...can you see the tree??

The view from the dungeon…can you see the tree??

Gwendolen Raley is  the Museum and Heritage Tourism Director, Indiana Landmarks, Indianapolis, IN, and a member of the AASLH Historic House Museum Affinity Group Committee.

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