When the writer and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein purchased Highland Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1940, he had just spent an unsuccessful decade in Hollywood, and may have believed the best years of his career were behind him. But the location brought him luck: shortly after the move he met composer Richard Rodgers, and over the next 20 years the pair created a string of classic musicals, including Oklahoma, Carousel and The Sound of Music.
After he was diagnosed with cancer in 1960, Hammerstein chose to die not at his Manhattan townhouse, but in Doylestown. Highland Farm, said his grandson Will Hammerstein, “was the most important place to Oscar, and there can be no argument on that.”
Now, Mr Hammerstein, who was born two years after his grandfather’s death, hopes to turn the farm into a museum and musical theatre venue. Doylestown’s Board of Supervisors unanimously opposes his plan, saying it is too grand for the location. Tomorrow, he will go before the local zoning board to argue its merits at a hearing.
In Oscar’s day, Highland was a working cattle farm with a house and barn sitting on well over 50 acres. Today, after several changes of ownership, the property consists of a little under five acres. Current owner Christine Cole bought the house eight years ago, in a state of disrepair, and converted it into a bed and breakfast with a Rodgers and Hammerstein theme.
Ms Cole recently told the Associated Press that she had intended to renovate the barn, but ran out of funds. She and Mr Hammerstein fear that if the museum plan fails, the property will have to be divided into four separate housing plots and the barn knocked down.
In 2010 Mr Hammerstein, a lawyer who lives in New York, booked a room at the bed and breakfast so that he could see the inside of his grandfather’s home for the first time, including the study where Oscar famously wrote his songs at a standing desk.
He and Ms Cole discussed saving the barn, and eventually came up with a plan: a house tour, a museum exhibit in the renovated barn, and then a performance of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in a specially built theatre space. Each day’s tour would be tailored to the show being performed that evening. “It seemed the correct thing to do in terms of honouring the legacy, and is big enough to generate the income required to sustain the place,” Mr Hammerstein said.
The $20m (£13m) plan would involve building a 400-seat theatre and a car-park for 100 cars on the property. Mr Hammerstein has set up a non-profit to raise the necessary funds. But while the local arts council reportedly supports the project, it faces several legal and regulatory challenges.
Highland Farm sits between two other homes on land bounded by a highway, a golf course, an office complex and a public park. Both adjacent property owners – one of whom is a member of the board of supervisors – are concerned about the possibility of traffic and late-night noise.
Supervisor Richard Colello said the scheme would breach local planning restrictions. “We’re in favour of the museum and the house tour,” he said. “We think that’s great. Where we disagree is that they want to put a 400-seat theatre on a five-acre property in a residential area... They’re saying they should be allowed to not comply with the law because this is such a great thing for society.”
Mr Hammerstein, meanwhile, insists that without the theatre performance, the project would not only be financially unsustainable, but the experience incomplete. “At the theatre, people will see the shows 150 feet from where they were written,” he said. “That should create an almost spiritual experience that cannot be recreated anywhere else. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and if you take the theatre aspect away, you kill it.”Reuse content