I started working at Rodgers and Hammerstein in May, 1981, almost a year and a half after Richard Rodgers passed away. My bosses were Rodgers’s widow Dorothy and Bill Hammerstein, the oldest child of Oscar. I knew Mary Rodgers and had met Dorothy but knew none of the Hammersteins. When I met Bill I found him to be avuncular, wise, contemplative, and cautious. He had been around long enough to know the ins and outs of the relationship between his father and Rodgers—complicated, yes, but also extraordinarily fertile and consistent.
One day after I had been in charge for a few years I received a phone call. The house that Oscar Hammerstein II had owned in Doylestown, Pa., Highland Farm, was on the market, and for a price that seemed modest—around $250,000. I knew that after Oscar died, his wife Dorothy—coincidence that both men had wives named Dorothy?—had sold the house. Bill and I had never had a conversation about the place and what it meant to the family. Maybe someone would feel nostalgic enough to buy it back? I put in a call to Bill.
“Do you have Hugh Fordin’s biography of my father nearby?” he asked. I pulled it from the bookshelf. “Look at the aerial photo of the house. Do you see the tennis court, below the circular driveway?” Yes, I said, it’s pretty clear. “Well, there is a major highway running right through where the tennis court used to be. That is why the price is what it is.”
I was crushed. What a shame, I thought. And that was the end of that.
Then a few years later I received another call out of the blue. This one was from Christine Cole, the new owner of Highland Farm, who was running the house as a bed & breakfast. She invited me down. My curiosity was piqued. I had never been to the house, didn’t really know where it was, but as president of Rodgers & Hammerstein I was always up for new discoveries that had a connection to the work I was now charged to manage.
The driveway to the house was so modest that on first pass, I missed it entirely. Backtracking over the double highway, I did find it, and drove in. There was the circular driveway, and the house. A piece of history on the hoof, the place in which so many of Oscar Hammerstein’s iconic lyrics and librettos had been written. Wow, I thought.
Christine was a gracious host. We walked the property. Despite the loss of the tennis court, the rest of the property still felt like a farmhouse, even the in-ground swimming pool—the first in Bucks County—that Oscar had been very proud of. She had assigned me what had been Oscar and Dorothy’s bedroom. Across the hall was the room that had been Oscar’s study, where, standing at his desk, he had done his writing. The walkway around the porch roof was still intact. On the one hand I was in a lovely old Pennsylvania farmhouse with, amusingly, the same balusters on the staircase as my 1865 Carpenter Gothic house in Connecticut; on the other hand, it was a place of extraordinary spirit in which so many artistically inspirational events took place.
Christine was not just determined that the house remain standing—a bed & breakfast with only a few bedrooms is a tricky financial undertaking. Instinctively she felt that the historic value of the place should be recognized and solidified. How could that happen, she wondered?
In fairly short order, Will Hammerstein, one of Oscar’s four grandsons, became devoted to a future for Highland Farm. He dreamed big: He wanted to turn the barn into a theatre that would present productions of Oscar’s shows, turn the house into a study center, put the place on a visible artistic map. Some fund-raising events took place at which Will’s passion was clearly evident.
After a while, it didn’t look like the dream would come true. Some of the property surrounding the house was being eyed by a developer. Some of the practical aspects of creating a public place in what had been a private home became more evident. Problems, problems…
But there was an idea, and it wasn’t going to go away. Happily for everyone, some smart local Pennsylvanians stepped in and saw not only the possibilities, but the importance of saving this piece of American cultural history. Why not turn the place into a theatre museum and education center?
That is now the plan: The Oscar Hammerstein Museum and Theatre Education Center is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with the mission to honor Oscar Hammerstein II’s work as a librettist and lyricist, and his legacy of mentorship and social activism. The vision is to purchase, restore, and preserve the Hammerstein home and barn at Highland Farm in Doylestown, Pa., and create a museum and theatre education center on this historic site. With the goal of creating a multifaceted and dynamic museum experience, with a strong theatre education component, serving as a place of inspiration for Broadway fans and humanitarians alike, OHMTEC has raised nearly $1 million toward the purchase of Highland Farm. An additional $1 million is needed to complete the first phase of the project, so that the home can be opened to the public as a museum. Donations of any amount are welcome and can be made by check, credit card or appreciated securities. Information can be found at hammersteinmuseum.org.
There are a few photographs in that Hugh Fordin book showing Hammerstein men sitting in rocking chairs on the porch of Highland Farm. The chairs are quite specific—large scale with circular arms. After Bill Hammerstein died, his wife, Jane-Howard, gave me two of those rocking chairs. Although I kept them proudly on my porch in Connecticut, once I got the feeling Highland Farm would have a future, I felt I should bring at least one of them back. (I still have the other one…perhaps I will find the right time to bring it back as well!) Those chairs are tangible reminders of the people who once sat in them, whose conversations led to some of the most extraordinary works in the American theatre.
Ted Chapin was president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization for more than 30 years.
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