Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Will bell toll for Hemingway's house?

Nature Conservancy seeks public comment on what to do with historic property

Express Staff Writer

The Ketchum house that was Ernest Hemingway's final residence was built in 1953. The structure was designed to resemble the Sun Valley Lodge, the famous resort hotel located just a few miles to its east. Express photo by Chris Pilaro

The owner of the Ketchum house where author Ernest Hemingway lived out his final days is embarking on a mission to determine what the future of the landmark property should be.

The Nature Conservancy of Idaho, the Hailey-based land-preservation organization that in 1986 inherited Hemingway's Ketchum residence and surrounding acreage, plans to issue letters next week to 13,000 Wood River Valley residents asking them to weigh in on whether the site should be renovated and opened for limited public access.

To facilitate public comment, TNC will host a community meeting Thursday, Jan. 13, at 6 p.m. in the Limelight Room of the Sun Valley Inn.

Geoff Pampush, TNC Idaho state director, said the meeting is designed to help TNC assess four different options for managing the Idaho Hemingway House, three of which call for the organization to give up control of the property.

"It is very clear to us that we're not the appropriate owner," Pampush said. "Our mission is to conserve biodiversity, not to manage historic sites."

At issue is the future of the final residence of one of the United States' greatest literary figures. Located northwest of central Ketchum off Canyon Run Boulevard, the rustic hillside house sits on 13 acres of pristine land overlooking the Big Wood River.

After purchasing the property in 1959, Hemingway made the house his part-time residence until July 1961, when he killed himself in its confines.

Hemingway's widow, Mary, in 1986 bequeathed the family's Ketchum property to TNC with instructions that it be maintained as a nature-related reference library and wildlife preserve.

The house was originally used as a TNC office but in recent years has essentially been left unoccupied, with TNC spending some $35,000 a year on basic maintenance. The land is maintained as a nature preserve.

In 2003, a group including part-time Ketchum resident Mariel Hemingway, the writer's granddaughter, formed the Idaho Hemingway House Foundation, a nonprofit organization that reached a nonbinding agreement with TNC to manage the property.

The foundation's plans called for conducting public tours up to three times per day, restoring the home to its 1959 condition, developing a scholarly library, conducting writing workshops and establishing a writer-in-residence program.

Last winter, the foundation applied to the city of Ketchum for a conditional land-use permit to allow limited public access to the site.

A group of Canyon Run Boulevard residents vociferously opposed the concept, claiming that public tours of the site would lead to unacceptable levels of noise and disturbance in the quiet, upscale neighborhood. Vehicular access to the Hemingway House is achieved via a private neighborhood road.

Some opponents have said public tours would establish the house as an international tourist attraction, as is Hemingway's former residence in Key West, Fla.

After negotiations with the neighbors broke down last spring, TNC withdrew its application to allow public access.

Discussions between TNC and the property's neighbors have continued but have not been fruitful, Pampush said.

"We do anticipate being sued by the neighbors at some point," he said.

Meanwhile, the Idaho Hemingway House Foundation has reiterated its plans to raise $500,000 to restore the house and establish limited access for public tours and programs.

"Do we have a treasure here or do we just have an old house?" said Jim Jaquet, a volunteer for the IHHF. "We all need to decide."

TNC has allowed its 2003 agreement with the IHHF to lapse but nonetheless is supporting a plan for the group to take control of the property.

In fact, conferring the house to the IHHF is the preferred of the four options currently under consideration by TNC, Pampush said.

"It has been too long to let the house lie fallow and deteriorate," he said.

The preferred TNC plan would include conveying the house to the IHHF and retaining a conservation easement on the surrounding land to maintain it as a nature preserve.

The preserve would be accessed by a public trail starting at a wooded city park immediately north of the intersection of Warm Springs and Saddle roads. A pedestrian bridge would cross the Big Wood River and guide visitors directly to the Hemingway property, without crossing any private lands.

The IHHF would restore the house and establish a nature library, literary workshops and a writers-in-residence program.

"We aren't Key West," Jaquet said. "Tours would be limited."

A second option calls for selling the house to a private buyer, with restrictions that mandate part of it is left standing. A conservation easement would maintain the land as a nature preserve.

Proceeds from the sale would be used to create a nature reference library in Ketchum, while Hemingway memorabilia would be transferred to the Kennedy Library in Boston, where most Hemingway manuscripts are held.

A third plan includes selling the house to a private buyer without restrictions, except that the nature preserve is maintained. All memorabilia would be conveyed to the Kennedy Library, while proceeds of the sale would be used to maintain a natural-history reference section in a local library.

The fourth option, one TNC favors the least, calls for TNC to retain the home in its current, deteriorating condition, with no public visitation allowed.

How to get involved

The Nature Conservancy will hold a community meeting on Thursday, Jan. 13, at 6 p.m. in the Limelight Room of the Sun Valley Inn to determine the future of the Hemingway House in Ketchum. The organization, which owns the Hemingway property, will solicit comments on whether the site should be renovated and opened for limited public access or sold to a private buyer. Those who cannot attend the meeting can submit comments on the matter via e-mail to E-mail comments should include the writer's name, address and contact information.

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