Preserving Alcott’s home for future generations

Louisa May Alcott wrote 'Little Women' at the Orchard House in Concord in 1868. Louisa May Alcott wrote "Little Women" at the Orchard House in Concord in 1868. (Kayana Szymczak)
By James O’Brien
Globe Correspondent / March 17, 2011

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When Louisa May Alcott’s hyacinth bloomed pink one spring day in 1868, she considered the flower a “true prophet’’ of good things to come. That same day she received $100 to write an advice column, and she would soon begin to write “Little Women,’’ a novel that would bring her even more fortune and fame.

This spring, the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association might be looking for its own “pink hyacinth’’ as it plans its 100th year as stewards of the Alcott family’s home in Concord.

Directors of the nonprofit group, which has owned Orchard House since April 1911, are thinking about the power of the place, and the challenges they face in protecting its historic legacy while accommodating the public’s desire to get close to the setting of Alcott’s most famous work.

“Our mission is education and preservation; right there you have a balancing act,’’ said Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House. “The whole reason we’re preserving Orchard House is to share it, but in that sharing process one has to be very careful that you’re still preserving.’’

Spared any heavy damage from the intense snowstorms this winter, Orchard House is about to embark on a new phase of preservation.

Its last major project was in 2002, when the largest section of the house — a series of small Alcott-era additions off the back of its two main buildings — received what it had always been miss ing: a foundation.

Now, Turnquist said, engineers are preparing to add a foundation to one of Orchard House’s accompanying structures: the building that housed the Concord School of Philosophy, part of patriarch Amos Bronson Alcott’s pioneering Transcendentalist efforts in adult education, in the 1880s. (He was also, for a time, the superintendent of Concord’s schools.)

The grounds are set for restoration as well. Over time, Turnquist said, the 40 or so apple trees that first attracted Amos Bronson to the property, and from which Orchard House took its name, fell victim to development and changes to the surrounding land.

There may not be 40 trees when the new trees are planted, according to Turnquist, but “it will be close to what Amos had, certainly with a variety of trees on the east side of the house.’’

Turnquist also wants to see improvements to the site’s handicap-accessible features, and to archival space in the recently acquired house next to the main buildings.

Orchard House guides take an average of 40,000 visitors on tours through the property every year.

The tours, conducted seven days a week, bring in about one-third of Orchard House’s annual operating budget of approximately $600,000. The volume of visitors also means that staff members have to stay vigilant to protect the interior from what might otherwise be a fatal — for Orchard House — attraction for history and literature buffs.

The floors have been reinforced with steel against all those feet since 2002, and beyond that, Turnquist said, “Every room gets carefully cleaned by people on duty that day. As they are cleaning, they notice the tiniest little things; these are then reported to our conservationists.’’

The Alcotts took ownership of the property in 1857, when Amos Bronson fused two buildings dating from about 1690 on the site to house his family.

When Louisa May sat down to write “Little Women,’’ she used the shelf desk that her father had built for her, and she based much of the book’s setting on the house, and its characters upon the people in it.

Since then, very little has changed at Orchard House. About 80 percent of the Alcott family’s original furnishings remain in place, even though the last of its members moved out in 1877, some 11 years before Louisa May’s death in Boston.

In July, Orchard House will host a special version of its annual Summer Conversational Series and Teacher Institute to mark the property’s 100th anniversary as a historical house museum.

The discussions, to be led by a yet-to-be-revealed list of scholars and writers, are expected to encompass not just Orchard House, but also Concord as a whole, and other noted 19th-century literary-historical figures with close ties to the family, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Sessions, presenters, programs, and activities will focus on what Turnquist describes as the centennial’s key question.

“People who take our guided tours say they feel as if the Alcotts just went out the door a minute ago,’’ she said of Orchard House. “So, what is the significance of this place, why is that so important? Those questions will be explored.’’