Where the past is present and history is touchable
Susan McMahon, the new executive director of The Landmark Trust USA.

Where the past is present and history is touchable

Susan McMahon becomes the new executive director of the Landmark Trust USA, a nonprofit that restores iconic buildings and opens them to public use

DUMMERSTON — Wet snow pelts the windows of Susan McMahon's second-floor office at Scott Farm.

The new executive director of the Landmark Trust USA extracts three shriveled rose hips - the color of raw sienna and the size of a ping-pong ball - from a cardboard box. Medlars, she calls them.

“Here, you squish them like this,” she said. “It tastes like cinnamon apples.”

The unglamorous heritage fruit is popular in Iran and Turkey, explained McMahon.

The mushy (edible) flesh looks like apple butter encasing large (inedible) seeds similar to walnuts. These fruits are not rotten, they're bletted, she said - meaning they need to soften to the point of overripe before they're eaten.

And, yes, they taste like cinnamon apples.

Touching, tasting, experiencing are cornerstones of The Trust, which McMahon began leading on Dec. 3, 2018 after 26 years at the Windham Regional Commission, where she most recently worked as associate director.

“I love my job,” McMahon said. “I feel fortunate I was able to find such a job this close to home.”

The profitable nonprofit

Established in 1991, The Trust aims to preserve historic buildings and educate visitors by rehabilitating properties and opening them for short vacation stays. The rentals provide a for-profit income stream that funds the nonprofit mission of maintaining the buildings.

McMahon said that this organizational dichotomy interests her inner entrepreneur. She explains that the concept of a nonprofit operating a for-profit business might work for more organizations.

Another local example is Brattleboro Area Hospice. The nonprofit operates Experienced Goods, a thrift store, on Flat Street in Brattleboro.

She came across the nonprofit/for-profit mixed model at the WRC. It intrigued her, but she lacked an opportunity to implement it.

Charitable organizations that adopt this model also increase their access to revenue, she continued. They can not only apply for grants and seek donations - the usual sources of revenue for nonprofits - but they can also have an independent, self-sustaining income stream.

“It's a great model if you can find something that makes sense for the nonprofit,” she said.

Making history real

The Landmark Trust USA is the daughter organization of The Landmark Trust UK, co-founded in 1965 by philanthropist Sir John Smith and his wife, Lady Christian Smith.

According to its website, Landmark Trust UK operates 200 properties, mostly in the United Kingdom, with several in Italy, France, and Belgium. They range from a converted clock tower that accommodates two people in Lympstone, Devon to the 16th-century Villa Saraceno, for 16 guests, outside Venice, Italy.

The USA branch operates five rental properties, with names familiar to many in Windham County: Rudyard Kipling's Naulakha, Kipling's Carriage House, the Sugarhouse on the Scott Farm, and the Dutton Farmhouse, all in Dummerston; and the Amos Brown House in Whitingham.

Best known for its 125 varieties of heirloom apples, Scott Farm also produces quince, currents, ginger, figs, peaches, plums, nectaries, pears, apricots, hops, and grapes.

Along with renting out the properties, The Trust also hosts educational events and opens Naulakha twice a year to the public.

Collecting rent from visitors helps maintain properties like Naulakha. And, according to McMahon, the Trust maintains that opening these historic landmarks makes the properties' histories feel present.

Typically, preservation involves either mothballing a property or turning it into a museum, McMahon said.

Landmark properties, by contrast, have neither velvet ropes nor do-not-touch signs, she said. Instead, visitors sleep, cook, and move through a building created during a specific time in history.

“Staying in these properties, you're closer to [history],” McMahon said.

A sense of place and community makes rural New England special, she continued - and when a community removes or loses a historic landmark, it can lose a part of itself.

As examples of such vital landmarks, McMahon points to Next Stage Arts Project, the Putney General Store, the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, and the Brooks House in Brattleboro.

Imagine Putney or Brattleboro without these buildings, she said. Imagine those areas as parking lots.

“These places bring forward a sense of place and a sense of community,” she said.

Gregory Farmer, who has served six years on the seven-member board, with one year as its president, views The Trust's mission as more than historic preservation. He sees it as a model of stewardship.

“It can be a very interesting way to travel,” he said. It's not a tour or a museum, he said.

“The property is all yours,” Farmer said. “You can run around in your underwear at midnight if you wish.”

A passion for preservation, from a place of caring

McMahon said that her new position continues the community outreach work she did at the Windham Regional Commission.

“I have a passion for historic preservation, working lands, and helping communities,” she said.

As the associate director, McMahon collaborated with communities on various projects. She spearheaded the WRC's successful Brownfields program and worked on transportation issues, said WRC Executive Director Chris Campany, who described McMahon, his colleague at the regional planning agency for 8{1/2} years, as passionate about her local communities and the people living here.

“She really does love this place,” he said. “Work for her is not just a job but comes from a place of caring.”

The Brownfields program helps provide planning and funds to return former industrial properties to safe community use. Local examples include the respective land under the New England Youth Theatre and Red Clover Commons in Brattleboro.

McMahon, whose planning efforts also centered on Vermont's historic villages, classified her commission work as “the fun stuff.”

The WRC traditionally collaborates with governments and organizations behind the scenes, said Campany, a self-described introvert, who praised McMahon for excelling at all social interactions.

Campany finds the Trust's income model interesting, calling it “accessible preservation.” He added that the U.S. could learn from its European attitude of prioritizing accessible public space - though, in his opinion, Vermont is closer to that European ideal than other regions of the country.

“Vermont tends to have an access ethic” when it comes to land, said Campany, in contrast to other regions of the nation that operate on an everything-is-private-unless-posted-otherwise basis, he added. To him, Vermont feels more free.

“Access generates care for the landscape you have access to,” he added, and The Trust's goal of opening historic buildings ties into this idea of access.

McMahon said she misses the WRC and her colleagues. She enjoyed her years building relationships with community members and said that she will transfer those relationship-building skills to her new workplace.

But, she adds, she felt ready for a new challenge.

Her new position at The Landmark Trust requires her to use her skills of community outreach and planning, said McMahon, who expects that once The Trust begins preservation work on new landmarks, her experience will shine.

The Trust has received calls from people in all 50 states to rehabilitate properties, McMahon said. For now, The Trust is considering a few properties in New England.

Management of such a project “really uses all my skills,” she said.

Along with considering new properties, McMahon wants to expand the organization.

Marketing, community outreach, and increasing visitor stays at The Trust's existing five properties are a few of the morsels on her plate.

Speaking with The Commons one month into her new position, she said she has found that every day contains a learning curve as she has jumped into budgeting, marketing, fundraising, and committee work.

So far, however, the biggest change for McMahon is shifting her mindset from the second in command to being the boss.

McMahon noted that she's used to working collaboratively as an associate director. While she still expects to work that way, she said that she still must reassure herself that she makes the ultimate decision.

McMahon wants the communities surrounding Trust properties to feel happy about the organization. She hopes community members will reach out with questions.

McMahon said that everything about working for The Trust feels exciting.

She praises her co-workers. The Trust employs nine people, some full- and some part-time.

“We're a lean group, but we get things done,” McMahon said.

Connecting with communities

Farmer said McMahon stood out from other candidates. Yes, she had the nuts-and-bolts skills of budgeting, leading staff, and project management that one seeks in a nonprofit's executive director.

But, he said, McMahon also shone more brightly because of her extensive network, her enthusiasm, and desire to connect with communities.

And that last strength resonated with the board, said Farmer, who wants the Trust to connect with the people in Windham County, many of whom don't know the organization exists.

Throughout the year, the Trust holds events like Just So Stories, which draws approximately 500 student participants to Naulakha, where a Kipling re-enactor will talk to the children about the wildly popular author and his work in the same site where he wrote some of his most famous work. This year's is scheduled for Monday, April 1 through Friday, April 5.

Later this spring, The Trust will host its annual Rudyard Kipling Young Writers Award at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro. The award challenges Windham County students in grades four through six to submit creative entries of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

The Trust also partners with the Stone Trust, an educational organization focusing on the art and craft of building and maintaining dry stone walls.

McMahon believes that in the era of big-box stores and mass-produced goods, people are “yearning for something that is real.”

“These properties engender a feeling that you're part of a community,” she said. “These are real. They feel like home. They feel like place.”

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