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All Spiffed Up: Clayton House ready to welcome back guests

by Jocelyn Murphy | June 14, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.
While one of the Clayton House’s biggest fundraisers, Sippin’ on Sixth Street, has been canceled for 2020, museum staff are hopeful they can reschedule some of their wine tasting events, keep the postponement date for the Fancy Nancy Tea Party on Sept. 12, and still host their largest yearly fundraiser, the Gaslight Gala, in December. The museum-led Belle Grove Historic District Walking Tours will also resume later in June, health and weather conditions permitting. Contact Clayton House for reservation information. (Courtesy Photo)

Since announcing their closure in response to covid-19 in March, the historic Clayton House in Fort Smith has had a busy spring. With no tours and no guests, the staff of mostly part-time employees was able to really dig into “spring cleaning” mode.

“The house is always clean and it doesn’t, obviously, get that dirty because nobody lives there,” assures Executive Director Mila Masur. “But we’ve gone through and cleaned the collection, which is another thing that’s very time-consuming.”

For example, she enumerates, “we have old clocks, and we’ve been able to go in and clean out dust and stuff that has accumulated in some of those things. All of the furniture, we were able to give it a good waxing. Deep cleaning of old linens and curtains — we just really gave the house a good scrub.”

William Henry Harrison Clayton and his family moved into the “new” wood frame antebellum house, originally built in the 1850s, in 1882 and completed its enlargement and renovation in the Victorian Gothic Italianate style. The home underwent a full technical restoration in the 1970s after being saved from the wrecking ball, and the Fort Smith Heritage Foundation established a 22-block area surrounding the property as the Belle Grove Historic District — entered onto the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Today, walking tours of the museum transport guests back to an era of elegance — when not closed due to a pandemic — as they peruse the home’s meticulously maintained 6,000-plus square feet full of the Claytons’ belongings and other beautiful donated Victorian pieces.

When the doors reopened on June 13, the Clayton House staff had taken precautions to ensure guests can revisit the home’s grandeur in a safe and socially distanced manner. The tours of the property are guided, so only one family group per tour may enter the home. The usually 45- to 50-minute tours have been reduced to around 15 to 25 minutes as the upstairs will currently remain closed.

“That’s because we have a 150-year-old bannister in the house that we cannot properly sanitize without ruining it. So that will be probably the biggest change,” Masur explains.

Should more than one group show up at a time, there is a pleasant waiting area on the back porch. Masks are required for guests, and disposable ones will be available to anyone who does not have one.

Throughout the closure, staff have kept friends and the community updated on museum happenings through the venue’s Facebook page. Some happy finds — like old photos of the Arkansas River Valley Master Gardeners installing the property’s first herb gardens — offered a glimpse at previously unshared history. Other updates have been more technical in nature, but reveal the work required to maintain such an estate — and that everyone can get by with a little help from their friends.

“We operate on a shoestring and a prayer, pretty much, so we really rely on our community partners,” Masur reveals. When a six-foot piece of capstone on the property’s retaining wall fell and cracked into pieces, Gene Smith of Smith Hardwood Floors and a friend of the museum helped to get it fixed. Darrell Robinson of Midwest Automation and Custom Fabrication is another partner Masur mentions gratefully, as he helped install the new handrails at the museum’s entrance to aid those who may have trouble with the stairs.

“We had to cancel one of our big fundraisers this summer, which was Sippin’ on Sixth Street, and we are in the middle of some wood repair renovation projects,” Masur says. “We entered into that project thinking we would be having that fundraiser. So all of the [community partners] or things that have been donated have been a big help.”

FAQ

The Clayton House

WHEN — Open noon-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 1-4 p.m. Sunday; closed Mondays WHERE — 514 N. Sixth St. in Fort Smith COST — Suggested tour donations: $6, $5/seniors, $3/ages 6-17, free younger than 3 INFO — 783-3000, claytonhouse.org

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