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Hammerstein farm as tourist attraction strikes a sour note

In this Dec. 29, 2014, photo, owner Christine Cole, stands near the porch of the farmhouse at Highland Farm in Doylestown Township, Pa. Oscar Hammerstein co-wrote several blockbuster Broadway shows at this farm in suburban Philadelphia, including Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music.

Mel Evans/AP

A plan to convert Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein's former home into a tourist attraction appears to be falling on deaf ears, but his grandson hopes public officials will soon start singing a different tune.

Hammerstein spent 20 years at Highland Farm in suburban Philadelphia, where he co-wrote musical blockbusters such as The King and I, Carousel, Oklahoma! and South Pacific. Now, Will Hammerstein wants to transform the property into the Oscar Hammerstein II Music & Theatre Education Center. But Doylestown Township supervisors and neighbours object to the scale of the $20-million (U.S.) proposal, saying it is too much development for the parcel. A zoning hearing will be held Jan. 12.

Oscar Hammerstein purchased Highland Farm in 1940, and it was there that he and Richard Rodgers formed their creative partnership, according to Hammerstein biographer Hugh Fordin. Though Hammerstein had a townhouse in New York, the farm became one of his favourite things – the place where he worked on The Sound of Music and every other production with Rodgers.

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"This place was deeply important to him," said Will Hammerstein.

Oscar Hammerstein raised cattle on the 40-acre property, which included a century-old, three-storey house with plenty of room for his family of seven. His youngest son, James, attended the nearby George School with fellow student Stephen Sondheim, who became a frequent visitor to the farm. Sondheim then famously followed in Hammerstein's footsteps, penning lyrics to shows including Into the Woods and West Side Story.

After Hammerstein died of cancer at the farm in 1960, his widow sold the land. It passed through many hands over the decades, losing acreage as it was subdivided in an increasingly suburban county.

By the time current owner Christine Cole first saw the house eight years ago, a punk rock band was renting it – the windows were boarded up, and the floors were littered with cigarette butts and beer cans.

"It was trashed, not a stick of furniture in here," Cole said.

She turned it into a bed and breakfast, with each room dedicated to a different Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Cole had grander plans to renovate the barn too, but lacked the resources.

Then Will Hammerstein serendipitously made a reservation at the B&B in 2010. He was in town for a reunion at the George School, which he also attended, and wanted to see the inside of his grandfather's house. Oscar had died two years before Will was born.

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Together, Cole and Will Hammerstein came up with an idea for a classic Broadway fan experience: a house tour, followed by a museum exhibit in the barn and capped off with an actual performance. It would require building a 400-seat venue, plus a parking lot for nearly 100 cars and several buses, on the now five-acre lot.

"It could be a full day of learning about this great lyricist and then seeing his work," Cole said. "You can't have a museum that's static for somebody that wrote musical theatre."

Yet adjacent property owners have major concerns about noise, traffic and storm water runoff, according to their lawyer.

"It's just way too intense a use in what is basically a residential neighbourhood," said attorney Stephen Harris.

The zoning board meeting isn't the only hurdle; approvals from other commissions would be required before ground could be broken. And then there's fundraising. Will Hammerstein, a lawyer living in Brooklyn, New York, has incorporated a non-profit to help on that front.

Members of the local arts council have expressed enthusiasm for the project, as it would add cachet to a region that already boasts the James A. Michener Museum and Pearl S. Buck House – authors who were both good friends with Oscar Hammerstein.

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But township officials want to draw the line. Supervisor Richard Colello said it's unfortunate that a scaled-down concept doesn't appear to be financially viable.

"The museum and house tour is an excellent idea," said Colello, but the extra development far exceeds what's allowed by ordinance. "It's not even close," he said.

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