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While Graceland Booms, Other Historic Homes Rot

Americans have always sought architectural brushes with greatness.

The nation's first president spent the night at so many inns and private houses that signs advertising "George Washington slept here" were regular roadside attractions even during his lifetime.

But only a few homes of celebrated figures, such as Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Elvis Presley's Graceland, have become sites that people go out of their way to visit. Most such places have been torn down, or fall into neglect and disrepair.

Last month, jazz great Miles Davis was honored with a postage stamp issued jointly by the U.S. and France. Yet his childhood home in East St. Louis, Ill., is being torn apart by thieves, its aluminum siding and even wood panels stripped from every side of the house.

It may be a shame when homes associated with great artists or historical figures are left to rot. But how many such homes are ever going to be preserved — or attract the interest of many visitors?

First, Be Beautiful

"Art and personality and greatness is created in physical space," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "If we can see those physical spaces and the context in which things were happening, those can give us important insights into people when they were at their peak."

It's not just the prominence of the person that makes a home worth preserving and visiting, Thompson says. The intrinsic architectural value or beauty of the structure may be more important.

The first structures that older cities in the Northeast decided to designate with historic status generally had some connection with the Revolutionary War, says Anthony Tung, a former New York City landmarks commissioner. Then, they started saving the most beautiful historic works in town.

"That kind of aesthetic beauty contest is not only legitimate, but gets through the city council," he says. "If you show them beautiful pictures, they get it."

Plain But Worthy

Both political debates and fundraising become trickier when it comes to homes that have a strong association with an important person, yet aren't otherwise so fabulous in and of themselves.

Tung recalls that when he was on New York City's landmarks board, there was a big debate about whether to offer a historic designation to the Queens home of another jazz trumpet legend, Louis Armstrong, because the red-brick residence was so plain.

"Some of us argued that that was the point — he was such a major international figure, yet with all that money, he had a modest house," says Tung, who teaches historic preservation at Columbia University. "I find the modesty of that house very telling."

But not everyone gets all fired up about preserving — or visiting — dull houses just because they once housed someone famous.

"The whole issue of the associations that houses and various building have because of events and personages is one of the major emerging preservation issues," Tung says.

Reach Out And Touch

Some people are fascinated with seeing the actual places where their favorite books and movies have been set. The Tuscan hill town of Volterra in Italy has seen a spike in traffic from international visitors in recent years attracted not by its Etruscan museum but the spots where parts of one of the Twilight movies were shot.

Tung argues that historic houses are a better place to go looking for the spirit of an artist than the various and sundry movie locations, studios or libraries where she might have actually done most of her work.

But that kind of connection with the past doesn't move everybody.

Blake Bailey, the biographer of Richard Yates and John Cheever, notes that the two writers both lived, at separate times, in the same house in Scarborough, N.Y.

The house is still there and still being rented out. "But there's no plaque up saying two of the greatest chroniclers of the postwar middle class lived in this house," he says.

Bailey doubts many people would go looking for one. Visiting such properties is instructive about the writers' aspirations and financial circumstances. Both borrowed local settings for use in their fiction. But Bailey still says their homes won't speak much even to those people drawn to their stories.

"It's helpful to a biographer, but I don't think it's of any great interest to John Q. Citizen," Bailey says.

Being There

Even from a scholarly standpoint, the house that a person grew up in will likely be less valuable than the boxes in the attic that might contain old letters and ephemera, says Thompson.

Still, sometimes there's no substitute for being there. Kansas City, Mo., is filled with sites associated with the boyhood and early career of cartoon pioneer Walt Disney. Butch Rigby, a local movie theater mogul, has been working for years to preserve some of them.

Each move the Disney family made represented a "comedown" in their fortunes, according to Disney biographer Neal Gabler. The neighborhoods where Walt Disney lived and worked remain poor.

For that reason, Rigby says, those places can offer tangible inspiration to kids living in meager circumstances about how much potential their lives still hold.

"It's very important for a kid growing up on the east side of Troost [Avenue] to understand a young Walt Disney sat there so poor that he could barely feed himself, but he shared food with a mouse who became the inspiration for Mickey Mouse," Rigby says. "We can lecture them in a hundred ways, but I guarantee Mickey Mouse will do a better job."

Great American Success Story

The house on Bellefontaine Avenue where Walt Disney lived the longest as a kid is still standing. It doesn't look like much. Parts of the facade are crumbling, and the neighborhood isn't especially inviting, with a new- and used-tire and repair shop around the corner.

Nevertheless, tourists show up every weekend, wanting to take a picture of the place, says Roberta Young Long, who lives there now.

"There's no greater American tale than the fact that one of the most famous pop icons in the 20th century grew up in a bungalow in a very working class neighborhood," Rigby says.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.