CONCORD — On an April morning in 1775, Phebe Emerson and her young children pressed their noses against the window pane, horrified to see the Rev. William Emerson running outside their home toward the sounds of gunfire.
Six months later, the young father and husband would be dead. But the house he built 247 years ago has stood witness to two American revolutions — the first sparked when colonists fought back the British at the nearby North Bridge, the second when the Transcendentalist authors wrote or debated within its walls.
Now another change is on the horizon that some Concordians fear will forever alter the Old Manse’s musty ambiance and pastoral setting — a proposed $1.8 million visitors center.
“Anything new should blend in,” insisted Marcie Tyre Berkley, 61, one of more than 40 people who have signed a petition calling for a scaled-down plan. “Lure them with an opportunity to find magic at the river. … the quiet... the North Bridge.”
The welcome center is the idea of the Trustees, formerly the Trustees of Reservations, which bought the Old Manse in 1939. For members of the nonprofit’s leadership team, the plan embodies a 21st-century strategy for engaging the public.
“We’re investing in our cultural sites [to] find new and creative ways to tell our stories,” said Joanna Ballantine, a Trustees vice president who oversees 65 properties.
It’s a complicated task, she said, given changing demographics: younger visitors with shorter attention spans and greater appetites for immediate gratification, whether snacks or shopping; millennials carrying their smartphones and eager to put themselves into the narratives the tour guides share.
The bottom line, said Ballantine, is a vision the organization shares with its constituents.
“We want to protect the Old Manse as a sacred place,” she said.
There are also practical concerns. Presently, there are no public bathrooms on the seven-acre property adjacent to the Minuteman National Historical Park, and visitors enter the house through an old woodshed that serves as ticket desk, information center, and bookstore.
Until the conservation and preservation organization completesa rigorous vetting process through local, state, and federal agencies, not one shovelful of dirt can be turned over. The Old Manse is both a National Historic Landmark and a Massachusetts Archaeological/Historic Landscape.
Still, townspeople are anxious.
The Trustees’ current plan calls for a one-and-a-half-story barn, 30 by 40 feet, set on a foundation that approximates the location of a barn that burned down in 1924. It would provide accessible restrooms, a food concession, an orientation and ticket sales area, meeting rooms, offices, and space for interactive displays.
Opponents have suggested a less obtrusive solution: Build a 15-by-28-foot garden shed and modify an existing shed on the property.
Built in 1770 by William Emerson, who preached resistance to English oppression from Concord’s pulpit, the Georgian-style clapboard house has for centuries been a gathering place for writers, artists, and historians.
Nathaniel and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne lived there as newlyweds, enjoying a vegetable garden planted for them by Henry David Thoreau before they moved in. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the first draft of his ground-breaking essay “Nature” at a small desk upstairs, where visitors can now see a replica.
Robert Gross, a Concord resident and retired history professor who has led programs at the Manse, supported the Trustees’ application for federal funding. But while he appreciates the group’s efforts to popularize its destinations, he questions its grasp of the Manse’s historical context.
“My issues are with the inadequate consulting of their neighbors in Concord,” Gross said in an e-mail, “and with the inattention to the history of the landscape, the house, the books and manuscripts, and the 18th- and 19th-century people whose legacy they are supposed to preserve.”
Some townspeople also question a change in the Trustees’ priorities since Barbara Erickson took the helm as chief executive officer in 2012. The organization has launched an intensive branding and promotional campaign and ventured into higher-stakes territory with a plan to build a Boston version of Manhattan’s High Line, a public park overlooking the city’s waterfront.
“To me, it’s all about branding and marketing and hiring consultants,” said Ellen Emerson, a great-great-great-great granddaughter of Rev. William Emerson.
But Erickson said the Trustees’ efforts underscore the nonprofit’s mission to protect historic properties in the state and expand public access to them.
“We have invested over $25 million in five years to ensure our landmarks are in good condition, while improving the visitor experience and growing our public programming offer,” Erickson said in an e-mail. “The welcome center at the Old Manse intends to do the same, improve property care, reduce the demands on the historic house itself, while making the visitor experience more welcoming and accommodating for all visitors.”
Ballantine pointed to practical necessity. Annually, 50,000 visitors walk the grounds of the national park and the Old Manse, but fewer than 18,000 visit the house. If the Trustees build a welcome center, people will come.
Ellen Emerson, who grew up in town and remembers visiting the Old Manse with her grandmother, is unswayed.
“You can’t recreate the feeling of an historic home by building a large welcome center,” she said. “The whole feeling begins in the house . . . imagining a cat rubbing up against your ankles, hearing the creaking of the floorboards.”Hattie Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.