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Lady of the House

Julie Carpenter brings knowledge and enthusiasm to the venerable Betts House

By Jane Durrell · September 23rd, 2008 · Cover Story

Julie Carpenter is still young, but she thinks old is cool. A good thing, too, as her job makes her the public’s interface with the oldest brick house in Ohio, the Betts House Research Center at 416 Clark St., two blocks west of Music Hall.

Naturally, she was a history major: Wittenberg College, class of 1995; master’s degree from George Mason in Washington, D.C., where she did museum-related work for several years.

Right now, Carpenter is busy getting ready for Sept. 27, when Betts House, one of two Cincinnati institutions chosen to take part in Smithsonian Magazine’s annual Museum Day, will be open from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. and admission, usually a modest $2 per person, will be free. (The other Cincinnati Museum Day participant is Xavier University Art Gallery.)

“We have a blacksmith coming,” Carpenter says. “Marcia Meadows Nelson. She’s a lot of fun. People can actually make something. When she comes for summer camp the kids get to pound on the anvil.”

Carpenter smiles as though she might like to pound on the anvil herself. She has reddish hair cut for easy care, blue eyes, an engagingly freckled face and a quick smile for things that catch her interest.

She’s still new to the city, having moved here to begin at Betts House in mid-March.

“I’m now focusing on this job and getting to know Cincinnati,” she says. “When I was a kid growing up in Ada, Ohio, we got as far as Kings Island and that was it. I’ve had no experience with the city, so it’s all brand new. Cincinnati reminds me of Washington, almost a little disconcerting sometimes but in a good way. Both are cities of neighborhoods, and the geography — a basin surrounded by hills where people moved originally to escape diseases in the basin areas — is alike.

“Washington is a green city, lots of trees, and Cincinnati has these amazing parks. Also the quality of the architecture, not the same but the architectural fabric is so interesting. I’m always looking at buildings while I’m driving. It’s really not safe, but I’m thinking, ‘Look at that!’ ”

Carpenter, who has lived a lot of places for a girl from Ada, interrupted her Washington time with stints in Ireland on a work permit and in Hawaii “to work at a museum on the Big Island.” Back in Washington and on the staff of the house museum Hillwood, she met curator David Johnson, who had been at the Taft Museum here before joining Hillwood.

When she talked of her underlying desire to move back to Ohio, Johnson urged her to come to Cincinnati.

Betts House seems to be a good place for Carpenter. She’s caught up in furthering programs already established and hopes to initiate others.

“I think about it all the time,” she says. “I’m slowly meeting my peers. My experience in Washington was that you don’t get anywhere on your own, you have to collaborate. I’m eager to know more people, and I want to get plugged into things.

“I had a little overlap with my predecessor and then immediately there was an exhibition opening, then summer camp, and where did six months go? Fall may be a little calmer. I want to get involved with the neighborhood organizations around here. There’s a Brewery District group, an Over-the-Rhine group, others. It’s a big learning curve.”

How does Betts House fit into the local museum scene?

“It’s a house museum,” Carpenter says, “but focuses on the building trades and doesn’t really jibe with some of the arts. But we can go in different directions, with exhibitions and programs. I want to be as open-minded as possible. I have a whole stack of things I’ve pulled out of the paper about things going on and am thinking about how to work with these people.

“For instance, girls doing sports build self-esteem. What about girls building self-esteem in the building trades? It’s out there, you just have to figure out how to plug in.” Betts House, built in 1804 and home to the Betts family through many generations, is open Tuesday-Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., other times by appointment and once a month on weekends.

The weekend times coincide with a series of lectures by Walter Langsam on “Great Cincinnati Families, Their Homes and Their Architects,” tying in with the Betts exhibition Great Cincinnati Families at Home. There are still two lectures to come, Sept. 20 and Oct. 11.

Later in the year, Carpenter plans to have the house open on Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends.

“People are always looking for something different to do with their families then,” she says. “I worked at movie theaters during high school and college, and they were insanely busy just after a holiday.”

What about the research element of Betts House?

“It’s a little bit of a misnomer, in that we don’t have a lending library or something like that,” she says. “We’re more about programming to further public understanding of the building trades, to see history through construction, to show what you can learn about the past by the actual built environment.”

Betts House is a perfect example of just that. Carpenter (ideally named for this job) draws my attention to a well-polished wood en floor, its planks each measuring 18 or more inches wide.

“Imagine the trees those boards came from, “ she says. “They’re white pine, and there just aren’t pine trees that big any more. When the Betts family came to Cincinnati in 1800, the city was a village of 700 to 900 people. That’s so hard to believe now.”

Carpenter has a historian’s delight in depth of experience. Tiny Betts House, which began as one room up and one room down, has been altered many times through the years, including after the New Madrid Earthquake. It’s accumulated a depth of experience that keeps her interest fully engaged.


Julie Carpenter is making Betts House her home.

BETTS HOUSE hosts lectures by Walter Langsam on “Great Cincinnati Families, Their Homes and Their Architects” (tying in with the exhibition Great Cincinnati Families at Home) at 11 a.m. Sept. 20 and Oct. 11 at the Cincinnati Fire Museum down town. The fee ($10, $5 for members) includes admission to Betts



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