BOSTON Kevin Kaminski and Maureen Clarke rented their dream home last November: A pre-Victorian farmhouse in Hamilton, Massachusetts, with a sun-drenched southern exposure, fireplaces in every room, original hardwood floors and more than an acre of land adjacent to a wooded park.
The couple's landlord, the state of Massachusetts, threw in irresistible rent terms on the 25-year lease: $0.
The hitch? Dodge House, as it is known, needed a total renovation. Boarded up for more than a decade, it had wasps in its walls, a decaying septic tank and rotting asbestos floor tiles. Over the last six months, Kaminski has worked full-time and spent some $25,000 to make the house habitable.
Kaminski and Clarke are "resident curators" in a unique public-private partnership program operating in a handful of East Coast states — Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut — and selected municipalities nationwide.
The programs lease publicly-owned historic properties to individuals or organizations that agree to pay for a rehabilitation and ongoing upkeep. Leases generally last at least 20 years, and rents are as little as $1 or nothing at all.
States, counties and cities nationwide have amassed hundreds of historic buildings, and many fall into disrepair, especially as government budgets shrink. More and more locales are considering curatorship programs.
"We have a number of wonderful historic properties, but lack the financial means to take care of them, so they sit vacant or underutilized," says Patrice Kish, director of the state's Office of Cultural Resources. "Many are incredibly threatened, so this is a real preservation tool."
Connecticut launched its program in 2010, and New Jersey is considering legislation to start its own. New York's Suffolk County, which owns more than 100 historic structures on Long Island, will seek applicants this summer for a five-property pilot program.
In Massachusetts, more than $12 million has been spent on these renovations over the past 18 years.
The projects aren't for the faint of heart.
The cost of renovation following years of neglect can range from $150,000 to several million dollars. They also must meet strictly watched local, state and, sometimes, national building codes. Financing isn't available, so potential curators must demonstrate they have either substantial nest eggs or ample do-it-yourself know-how to invest. And, in the end, most will never see a dime in return for their hard work.
Still, for some, the opportunity to live in a historically significant home is payoff enough.
"We anticipate our costs will end up being about the same as paying two years worth of rent in New Jersey," Clarke says. "Then we'll have 23 years of living rent-free in this amazing home we might not be able to afford otherwise."
Many government-owned historic homes and buildings remain empty, isolated and boarded up, on the fringes of state forests or parks.
"It's not like George Washington slept here," says Jim Hall, who runs Delaware's curator program. The state's park system owns more than 220 properties. "Even if I had the funding to save them all, I couldn't find a good public use for them."
With a little imagination, resident curators often do.
Some homes take on grander, even commercial, purposes. Near Dodge House, for instance, is Willowdale Estate, an early 1900s Tudor-Revival mansion. Its curators signed a 50-year lease in 1997 and invested more than $3 million to transform the once-derelict manse into a high-end event space available for weddings and private parties. In other states, previously dilapidated properties have become bed-and-breakfasts or office space.
One common requirement, however the site is used, is that the property be open to the public for a certain number of days each year. Some curators hold garden tours or art classes.
"If you live in a state park, you can pretty much expect a knock on the door every other day from someone looking for a bathroom or museum," says Kevin Allen, who runs Massachusetts' program.
Applying to be a resident curator is a rigorous process. Demonstrating passion for old buildings and preservation is a must. Candidates also need to submit highly detailed proposals for how they would use the property and pay for the project. Applicants needn't have a specific income level, but bank statements, tax returns and even professional references are requested to demonstrate they can afford repairs.
If candidates plan to do much of the work themselves, previous experience in contracting also is key. Properties can need brand-new roofs, plumbing, even electricity installed. Others may need foundations fully rebuilt.
"You really have no idea how extensive and expensive these repairs can be until you're in the middle of them," says Donna Ann Harris, a Philadelphia-based preservation expert.
In Delaware, every hour of sweat equity must be tallied up monthly. And all states require regular inspections and progress reports. If deadlines aren't met, curators risk eviction.
"The paperwork is endless, and it's not something that gets turned around quickly," Hall says.
Banks won't give curators loans on properties they don't own. Insurance, too, can be hard to get. Some states help on initial expenses, such as asbestos or lead removal, but little else. And, as Hall says, "Every nail you buy is a donation you're making to the State of Delaware."
On the other hand, because they're using private funds, curators can receive certain tax breaks. Volunteers sometimes donate labor, and Clarke and Kaminski have received some materials for free, including vibrant paints from the firm Farrow & Ball.
Not everyone is up to the job. Connecticut put two properties out to bid in June 2010, but couldn't find any qualified takers.
"Lower housing prices could be having an impact at the moment," says Susan Frechette, deputy commissioner at the state's Department of Environmental Protection. "People don't see as much upside when they can afford something nicer of their own."
Sometimes, a project just needs the right person.
Massachusetts is currently seeking a curator for an 18-foot schooner called Ernestina, which once sailed to the North Pole, and needs about $2 million in work.
"I don't doubt someone will fall in love with it and come up with an incredible vision of what it can be," Allen says.
(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)
(Editing by Bernadette Baum)