Oldham settles in as executive director at Park-McCullough House

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NORTH BENNINGTON — Expanded hours, new membership structure and many community events are changes Chris Oldham has planned for Park-McCullough House.

Oldham, the former executive director of the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless, started his new position as executive director of the house last month.

There's a lot of people who have never been to the Park-McCullough House — including many locals.

Oldham said that's on the forefront of his mind.

"We want to create a Park-McCullough experience for people," he said. "One of that's lasting. And one the community can be proud of, so when they do have visitors, this would be the first place that they bring them."

The Park-McCullough House announced the hiring of Oldham as its new executive director in early August, representing the first time a full-time employee leads the house in almost nine years.

Oldham had been executive director of the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless since 2015.

Mainly, Oldham said, the goal is to draw the community to the house.

"Giving people a reason to come back," he said. "Targeting those people who have never set foot in the house, or even on the property. Getting people energized about what the Park-McCullough House is, and I think really what it comes down to is just engaging the community."

The house has deep roots in local history, and is also a major draw for tourists to the area, he said.

Oldham's first day was Sept. 16 — "which, coincidentally, is John McCullough's 186th birthday," he said.

And, he said, he hit the ground running.

His first day on the job, he set up meetings with local players to start a couple weeks of brainstorming.

"Really, the first thing that I had to do was evaluate and assess what Park-McCullough is today, and what it could become," he said. "One of the things that I really wanted to do is bring the Park-McCullough House to new heights."

To that end, there are many changes coming, starting with the house's 2020 season, including a new membership structure, expanded community events, planned education efforts and an expanded season.

The house has been open for tours seasonally, on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

But come the 2020 season, it will be open for tours seven days a week, Oldham said. There will be three tours a day, rather than tours as people come in.

"That'll help with the schedule," he said. But they will have to hire in connection with that effort, and will also be seeking volunteers.

"If money wasn't an issue, I would have several tiers of staffing," Oldham said. "But we are going to be looking at volunteers, and maybe exchanging memberships for volunteer hours."

The last day of the season is usually around Columbus Day, but starting next season, the house will be open until Halloween.

"The reason why I'm extending it a little longer is because I still see folks who are coming onto the property who really want a tour," he said. "And the other historical sites that stay open through the season close at the end of October, so I want to be consistent."

Changes also include restructuring the membership program "completely," Oldham said.

"Part of that is to bring in some more revenue, obviously," he said. "It's pretty expensive to not only maintain, but to also preserve, the building."

There will be five membership levels, from the $100 Friends of the Park-McCullough — the lowest — to the four-person, $1,250 Cupola, the "all-access membership," which will include full access to all special events, regularly scheduled events, tours and exhibits with no fee.

"The idea for me is to give more to members," Oldham said. For example, he said, the $1,250 cupola membership has a value of $3,200.

These new memberships will be launched within the next month or so, Oldham said, and the memberships will start at the beginning of the 2020 season.

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Oldham also plans to add a plethora of community events to the house's offerings.

These include an outdoor movie series, a concert series, and PMH talks — "our version of TED talks" — a croquet league, yoga in the garden, high tea parties, a cigar and bourbon club, and wine tastings on the veranda.

"They used to have some events, here and there," he said. "But the idea is to start offering regular events."

The history and heritage of the house can't be taught without people there, he said.

"These events bring community together and also get people excited about the house," he said. "And maybe we can get people to do tours from there, also."

This winter, Oldham will also be working on the education program that will roll out in the spring.

It will basically involve going into the schools, and inviting classes to do tours at the house, he said.

"It's really important for me to get the kids back into the house, and start teaching them about their local history, about the family, early on, so that they do have an appreciation for it as they get older," Oldham said. "That's exactly what happened with me."

The house itself is "pretty solid," and financially, it's stable, he said.

"It's a good, strong structure."

But it needs work, including cleaning up trees, fixing the stone wall around the property, and wallpaper restoration.

Internet capability was also just upgraded in the house, with an eye toward people renting the space — not just for weddings, but things like annual meetings or team-building exercises.

In his prior position as executive director of the coalition for the homeless, raising money was the biggest challenge, Oldham said.

"Fortunately, with [Park-McCullough], we have opportunities," he said.

The house is at an advantage with multiple ways to bring in revenue — memberships, tours, grants and rentals, he said.

Oldham traces his love of the Park-McCullough House back to a tour he took in the fourth grade.

"And I fell in love with the property, and the history," he said. Fast-forward 30-ish years, and he had several personal milestones on the property, including proposing to his fiance inside the house.

Oldham said he appreciates the "backstage pass" he has to the house, including the third floor, which isn't open to the public.

He said he found a large binder of letters, written by John McCullough and Lizzie Park, who would eventually marry, and he's been sharing them on Facebook once a week.

"One of the letters that I just shared on Facebook was the letter that John sent to [Lizzie's father] expressing that as a gentleman, he stayed here at the house for a week, and during the week that he was here, he fell in love with his daughter," Oldham said.

He characterized McCullough as a "very romantic guy."

"As I'm reading these letters, I'm really getting an inside look into who they are, or were as people, and what life was like back then," he said.

Lizzie Park wrote letters about playing croquet on the lawn with her friends, and having famous musicians perform private concerts in the house's music room.

McCullough said he also features a former employee of the house once a week on Facebook in an "Employee Spotlight."

Employees worked at the house between 1865, when the family first moved in, and 1965.

"This is an American treasure," Oldham said of the Park-McCullough House. "It speaks volumes as to where we were. We have a responsibility to make sure that we maintain that, so that the future generations can really get a piece out of this, too."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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