PA Officials Say Hammerstein Home Can Become a Museum, But Not a Theatre

News   PA Officials Say Hammerstein Home Can Become a Museum, But Not a Theatre Oscar Hammerstein wrote many of his country-themed lyrics there.
Highland Farm
Highland Farm Creative Commons

Local officials in Doylestown, PA, have granted permission to convert Highland Farm, onetime country home to Broadway lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, into a museum.

Hammerstein wrote many of the classic songs for Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, South Pacific and The King and I at the house. Oscar Hammerstein's Highland Farm Inc. (OHHF), a not-for-profit organization headed by Hammerstein grandson Will Hammerstein, has been working since 2014 to get permission to turn the building, currently used as a theatre-themed bed-and-breakfast, into a museum for his grandfather's work.

According to local news site TheIntell.com, Doylestown Township supervisors voted 4-0 to approve the draft of the plan October 4, with the stipulation that the originally proposed $20 million, 400-seat theatre be eliminated.

In 2014 William approached the local zoning board with a plan to turn it into a museum and a theatre. But the OHHF plan, estimated at $20 million, which would have required building a 400-seat venue, plus a parking lot for nearly 100 cars and several buses, on the five-acre lot, was denied over fears of “noise, traffic and stormwater runoff.”

In their October 2016 report, the supervisors said such a theatre would “negatively impact... the integrity of this historic residence.”

Hammerstein told Playbill.com that the decision was ”great news’ because OHHF can now move forward with purchasing the land and planning renovations. Hammerstein also said that while the supervisors barred an on-site theatre, the OHHF hopes to build a new theatre somewhere in the vicinity, and has begun scouting for sites.

“The only thing that is changed is the location of the theatre in the borough of Doylestown. It bears pointing out that Oscar was a walker and liked to walk into town all the time. If he walked into town today he would find it very familiar. So there is a real connection wherever we plant the theatre.”

Will said he hopes to have the museum open in “two years, give or take.” The OHHF is hoping to assemble a slate of 10 or so Hammerstein experts to tell Oscar’s story and to help curate the trove of Hammerstein memorabilia possessed by the family.

The Highland Farm building has been operating for the past nine years as a bed and breakfast owned by Christine Cole.

Will confirmed earlier this year that Cole is still owner, but that OHHF “is in contract to purchase from her, pending the outcome of our legal appeal of the zoning decision.”

The OHHF responded, “OHHF has an exclusive agreement of sale with the owner of Highland Farm. Fund raising and related activities are set to reconvene by OHHF pending a final, negotiated resolution of our appeal in Bucks County Court. Any donations that have been made to an organization other than OHHF that has represented that the organization intends to purchase Highland Farm should be investigated by the donor to ensure that funds will be used as intended. Any organizations that have solicited and collected funding and would like to provide those funds to OHHF to support its initiatives are asked to contact OHHF Chief Financial Officer, Tanya Cooper.”

The 1840 farmhouse has a second claim to theatre fame. It wasn't far from the house where composer Stephen Sondheim lived with his mother after the end of her unhappy marriage. Teen Sondheim legendarily fled to Highland Farm, where he fell under the spell of the avuncular Hammerstein, and eventually resolved to follow in Hammerstein's footsteps and become a musical theatre writer himself.

It's also the place Hammerstein died in 1960.

The OHHF statement continued, ”Previous plans for the project included an on-site theater at Highland Farm. As part of the negotiation process with interested parties to our appeal, OHHF has agreed to remove the theatre from its plan for Highland Farm. Our plan is to convert the house and barn into a museum. We believe that this scaled-down plan will create the most ideal conditions for the surrounding community while still facilitating our ability to execute the mission of preserving both the farm and Oscar’s legacy. We are exploring alternate nearby locations for the theatre. ”

OHHF's Cooper included a separate statement, saying, “We are very optimistic about reaching a resolution that will serve key stakeholders as well as the community. We thank all involved in this process and value the care and concern of all parties to ensure that a mutually beneficial outcome is reached. We are extremely passionate about our mission to honor Oscar Hammerstein II’s legacy as a writer, lyricist and mentor and to uphold his personal values of resiliency, optimism and inspiring change.”

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