“Welcome home,” said the man who greeted us as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Craftsman-style house. After a long and rainy drive that had begun early that morning, I was grateful to hear those kind words. Along with a group of graduate students from the University of Michigan, I had driven to Akron from Ann Arbor to visit the home of Robert and Anne Smith. As many readers undoubtedly know, Dr. Bob, as he is affectionately called, co-founded the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship with Bill Wilson. We had come to see the house as part of a public history class I am teaching this semester, focusing on a proposal that Dr. Bob’s Home be designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL). For me, this course has been a terrific opportunity to bring together two long-time interests, addiction history and the role of historic places in shaping public memory. It has also been a wonderfully collaborative enterprise, and some of the reflections I offer below come out of conversations with students.
Students in the class have been learning a great deal about drinking practices, alcoholism, and the treatment of alcoholics in American history. They have also had to become familiar with federal historic preservation programs—a steep learning curve all around.
First, I’ll explain a bit of the preservation process, and then say more about our visit to Akron. Properties receive NHL status through a complex procedure that requires researching, writing, and presenting a report that is equivalent in length and scope to an article in a scholarly journal. The NHL programis administered by the National Park Service (NPS), and students in the course have been working closely with NPS staff as we move through various steps, which include peer review of the nomination and will culminate in an official presentation before the Landmarks Committee, a panel of scholars drawn from across the U.S. Ultimately, the decision to designate a property—or not—rests with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
A few other points: Dr. Bob’s Home is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a sister program in the National Park Service. National Historic Landmark status is a higher-level designation, one that would recognize the national and even international significance of the property, based on the role of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith in the development of Alcoholics Anonymous and the therapeutic and cultural importance of Alcoholics Anonymous itself. Readers might be interested to know that Stepping Stones, the long-time home of Bill and Lois Wilson in New York State, has recently been nominated for NHL status as well. Also, it is important to make clear that Dr. Bob’s Home is owned by the Founders’ Foundation, a non-profit group which maintains the property as a museum, not by Alcoholics Anonymous.
When we were in Akron, our gracious host generously devoted the day to us, providing a detailed tour of the house and outlining how the property was acquired in the mid-1980s and has since undergone some renovations. He interwove his own story gracefully, which helped us appreciate the emotional attachment that so many people feel to this place.
We learned about the thousands of visitors every year, many from all over the world, and the annual Founders Day celebration, which commemorates the initial meeting between Bill and Dr. Bob that launched the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship. Our host also took us to other AA history sites in Akron, including the Mayflower Hotel from where Bill W. made the call that ultimately connected him with Dr. Bob; the Seiberling gatehouse at Stan Hywet Hall where Bill and Dr. Bob had their initial conversation; St. Thomas Hospital where Dr. Bob practiced, and the hospital chapel with displays about Sister Ignatia, with whom Dr. Bob cooperated in securing hospital treatment for alcoholics; and the King School building, where early AA meetings were held.
Dr. Bob’s Home is technically a “house museum”—as the term suggests, a home that has been turned into a museum, often due to the fame of someone who once lived there. I have been in many house museums as a tourist and employee, and never have I felt the two parts of that term come together as profoundly as they do here. As the students and I have since discussed at length, the fact that this is a house helps visitors grasp the intimate ways that alcoholism and recovery affect and can be shaped by families, not just individuals. Moving through the house, climbing the stairs, going through doorways, brushing past each other in and out of various rooms—all of this demonstrated to us, in a way that simply reading about it never could, the critical role that Anne Smith and the Smith children played in the origins and evolution of the AA fellowship as they literally made room in their private, domestic space for Bill Wilson and then for many other alcoholics who participated in the burgeoning program.
Today, of course, the property functions as a museum, and it is interpreted—that is, decorated and furnished—to look as it did during the time Dr. Bob and Anne lived there in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Operating the home as a museum poses various challenges, not least the impact of thousands of visitors annually. Much of the recent renovation is intended to reinforce the structural integrity of the building, and a few small areas of the home, such as Dr. Bob and Anne’s bedroom, which boasts original furnishings, can be viewed but not generally entered by visitors.
Yet this house museum is by no means a velvet-roped, hands-off, frozen-in-time artifact. Being thoroughly socialized in typical museum practices, I was initially startled to learn that visitors can sit on the sofa to pray or meditate, and that many people come to the house to perform AA’s Third Step in one of the upstairs bedrooms, now known as the “Surrender Room” since that is where Dr. Bob himself did so. Dr. Bob’s Home thus perpetuates as well as commemorates the founding story of Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather than being cordoned off and segregated from one another, past and present are allowed to mingle here with an intimacy that few other historic places can achieve.