As visits to suburban birthplace of Hemingway plummet, museum improvises to stay open

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OAK PARK, Ill. — On July 21, 1899, Ernest Hemingway was born in the second floor bedroom of a Queen Anne Victorian home in Oak Park and would go on to become one of the world’s most revered writers.

Keenan Johnston said he knows every last detail of the home after first working as a volunteer tour guide and now as a board member of the Hemingway Foundation.  

“To think it all started here, and that’s why our visitors come and all that’s left is volumes of literature that people still read today, 100 years later, because it’s timeless and true,” Johnston said.

For decades, the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum has been open to the public, giving a rare glimpse inside the Pulitzer Prize winner’s roots. His first-hand scribbled notes, childhood bedroom and personal family belongings are all on display. 

“The volume and diversity of our visitors is astounding,” Johnston said. “We’ll get bus tours from Asia, Europe and I think a lot of people learned English from reading Hemingway.”

The museum has survived solely on revenue from tours since the ‘80s, but visitors have plummeted 86% since the pandemic began, leaving one of Oak Park’s greatest landmarks in dire straits

“It was the place where his story began,” Johnston said. “That’s why this is such a big stake for us because we don’t want to lose this history.”

Hemingway once wrote: “The shortest answer is doing the thing.” In that spirit, the foundation got to work and started trying to raise the $75,000 they needed to survive. 

They started virtual tours, created the ‘Save Hemingway’ GoFundMe Page and something they call “Work from Hemingway,” where anyone can pay to have the historic home to themselves for an entire day. 

“I’ll see them hanging out on one of the couches and keep going to different places and kind of making a day of it,” said Keith Strom, Executive Director of Hemingway Foundation.

Now the foundation is working to do anything it can to keep the doors open to a home steeped in history and programming for aspiring writers and artists.

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