SPET by SPET: Museum hopes to preserve history with move to ‘Genevieve Block’

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — As a community rallied to save a piece of history at the “Genevieve Block,” an organization dedicated to preserving history itself is hoping to find a soft place to land at the southeast corner of the property.

The Save the Block campaign, led by the Land Trust, managed to accomplish its mission and preserve a strategic block downtown that the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum (JHHSM) would very much like to make its permanent home. An opportunity to consolidate, renovate, and create a new campus for JHHSM has been plotted. All that remains is the heavy lifting.

“What really makes this project exciting is it is an opportunity for land ownership for the Historical Society and Museum on a historic block downtown. Those have been our two goals in searching for a property for years and here it is,” says executive director of JHHSM Morgan Jaouen. “We get to be in the right context for the museum and kind of control our future.”

Why the move?

First things first, because it’s a question almost everyone has when it comes to the Historical Society and Museum: Don’t you have a place already? Two or three, in fact?

“The Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum currently operates out of three properties—none of which we currently own and none of which are sustainable in the long term. They all have some kind of lease associated with them. And all are coming to a head, basically,” Jaouen says.

The main property, or what most people know as the current museum space, has a long-term lease with a private landowner, though JHHSM does own the building. But the rent escalates each year. The museum’s storage property at 105 Mercill has been leased at a nominal fee from the county for more than 30 years. That arrangement comes to an end March 2020 when the county will break ground on a housing project there. The property on Deloney is situated in a building on the historical registry that is too antiquated to be brought to modern standards.

This building is too old to be brought up to modern standards. Photo: Buckrail // Nick Sulzer

Why now?

Timing is critical. As the museum faces the loss of the Mercill property, and with the main location subject to increasing rent and potential redevelopment plans by the owner, the search for a permanent place has been ongoing for a while now. But the Jackson market being what it is, not much was in the price range of JHHSM—not if they wanted to be anywhere near a foot-trafficked town square.

Then came the Save the Block campaign. Town and county liaisons Mark Newcomb and Jim Stanford got the ball rolling with the Land Trust. Meetings were arranged and soon Jaouen became more and more optimistic about working something out.

A space at the southeast corner of the block is designated to be a section where valued community organizations like the Historical Museum can purchase their own land and building for a permanent home. It was just what the museum was looking for.

How much?

The endeavor will certainly be the biggest step undertaken by JHHSM since Slim Lawrence got the whole operation up and running in 1958 with mostly his collection of artifacts. The museum now has over 35,000 objects, photographs, records, and oral histories in its collection. They help tell a story of Jackson Hole spanning 120 years of pioneer life and beyond, to 11,000 years of human occupation in the valley.

Prop 8 for $4.4M will cover roughly half the total cost of getting the museum relocated. That money will be matched by an additional $4.5M, coming from proceeds from the sale of the current museum/office building and other sources.

Jaouen says the museum has been diligent about running the numbers. They’ve done some preliminary geotech on the site and basements, for example, are looking like a good possibility. The museum’s archives would be stored in a climate-controlled basement.

JHHSM has been reluctant to do too much planning at this stage out of prudence. But enough is known that $9M will make it work and the new site and building would allow the organization to serve the community and visitors for generations to come.

The importance of yesteryear

The Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum is all about connecting people to place. Outside of microfilm copies of old newspapers at the library, the museum is the only place where history is preserved, maintained, documented, and shared.

In addition to collecting and preserving artifacts and historical records, the museum has expanded programming to reach far beyond being simply a repository for fossils and folklore.

JHHSM offers educational opportunities through summer camps and special youth programming. The museum also hosts a speaker series, walking history tours, and other regular and signature events designed to foster a deeper appreciation for our history’s heritage and cultural traditions.

The museum shares its collection to visiting guests via ever-changing displays and collections. It also opens its doors to locals who want to learn more about our rich past with the free Stan Klassen Research Center.

The chance to anchor a historic block in a legendary western town with an organization dedicated to preserving the annals of time—well, it’s too good to be true. And a big step remains on November 5.

“The way this community has come together to support the Genevieve Block and a permanent home for our history is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot,” says Clarene Law, co-chair of the PAC for supporting Prop 8 and a legend in her own time. “I am so pleased to see the community energy around this initiative. Now we just need to cross the finish line with the SPET election and the final piece of funding for anchoring the block with our history museum.”

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