The James K. Polk birthplace in Pineville was in grave danger two years ago when state lawmakers discussed cutting funds for state historic sites.
However, the budget cuts never came.
And this month the state historic site celebrated the 219th birthday of the nation’s 11th president. The site also celebrated completion of more than $140,000 in renovations to its museum and visitors center.
Hundreds of people visited the Polk birthplace Nov. 15 for a day of festivities that included historic outdoor cooking demonstrations, a birthday cake and a ribbon cutting.
“We had 644 people on a cold Saturday afternoon,” said Keith Hardison, director of N.C. Historic Sites for N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. “We had to have the assistance of the police to direct traffic. That’s a problem I like to have.”
The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources oversees 24 historic sites in North Carolina, including the Polk birthplace.
None have been closed, which would mean one staff member maintaining a dormant site, despite discussions among state lawmakers, but the department’s budget has been reduced from $9 million to $7 million since 2006, Hardison said.
“We operate on a shoestring budget in a very efficient and effective manner,” he said. “Our goal is to continue to do that and to continue to deliver quality (programs and experiences).”
Hardison said he believes the future of the Polk site is bright.
“It’s important to realize that the President James K. Polk historic site is the only property that the state of North Carolina owns that interprets the life and legacy of an American president,” he said. “We think that’s important.”
The Polk site is near downtown Pineville on land once owned by Polk’s parents. James K. Polk lived there until he was 11, when his family sold their farm and moved to Tennessee.
Polk was president from 1845-1849, and he is known for expansionist accomplishments that include annexing California and settling a dispute over the Oregon Territory’s northern boundary.
Hardison said more than 15,000 people a year visit Polk’s birthplace, which includes the museum and three 1830s buildings that were moved there from other parts of Mecklenburg County.
The Polk site is a required field trip for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools third-graders, who constitute about a fifth of the site’s annual visitors.
The Polk birthplace has three full-time employees and two part-time employees, and it regularly hosts special events and educational programs. Hardison said his department is moving forward with a long-term plan to improve and upgrade the site.
Part of that involves raising more money from private donors to supplement state funding. The Polk birthplace’s annual budget is about $173,000, including about $128,000 in state appropriations. The rest comes from outside sources, Hardison said.
Scott Warren, site manager for the Polk birthplace, said the museum and visitors center building had not been updated since it was built in the 1960s. The money for the recent renovations was allocated in the fiscal year 2012-13 state budget.
The site stayed open during the work, which began in September.
Renovations included new handrails for handicapped areas, new front doors on the building, minor bathroom updates, new track lighting in the museum and improvements around the exhibits.
Fluted colonnades have been added to lobby, which Warren said are “something very befitting the birthplace of a president.”
“It was a very welcome face-lift for the museum and visitors center,” Warren said.
The site is recovering from a fire in October, which started when an ember from a historic cooking demonstration lodged in the logs of the site’s kitchen building, Warren said.
“The roof needs to be replaced, but the building itself is in good shape and we hope to have it back online in late winter or early spring 2015,” Warren said.
Hardison said the Polk birthplace tells the story of a man who came from a hardscrabble background, worked hard and became the leader of the United States.
“That’s about as inspiring a story, in my book, as anyone can tell,” he said. “And we have a place that tells it. We’re going to make sure that place stays telling that story.”