Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Women and Historic Preservation 

12-09-2015 17:35

It’s hard for us today to imagine exclusive million-dollar homes occupying the grounds of what was once Mount Vernon or a high-rise office building where Independence Hall once stood. These are historic properties that many people take for granted, assuming that their significance to American history is so readily apparent to all that their very existence is automatically guaranteed. We, as preservationists, know better. Historic properties are part of our daily fabric of life because someone has had the foresight to appreciate their importance and the initiative and resourcefulness to find ways to preserve them for the future. Historically women have been at the forefront in the fight to save these tangible, and vulnerable, reminders of our past.

Early preservation efforts bear out the notion that history is just that -- his story. Mount Vernon and Independence Hall are but two examples of how so much of our history as a nation has been dominated by the actions of men, mainly in the realms of government, war, and business.

Yet it was women who were instrumental in preserving many of these sites so important to American history. Why women? Because the Victorian ideal of the 19th and early 20th centuries largely restricted women’s responsibilities to the home with the social imperative to be good wives and mothers and to maintain a healthy, pleasant, and esthetically pleasing environment in which their families could reside. Since women were prohibited from voting, and lived primarily under the auspices of fathers, husbands, and other men, their influence at home and in their communities was often limited. However, during the late 19th century, leisure time for women of the middle and upper classes increased, affording them the opportunity to somewhat broaden their horizons. Women’s clubs flourished during this time because they temporarily got women out of the home and provided an opportunity for social interaction among women which might otherwise have been missing from their lives. The mission of so many of these clubs largely mirrored the roles that individual women played within their own homes, but provided women a socially acceptable avenue by which they could have an influence in their communities at large. Women’s clubs often provided social services for those in need and sought to improve the educational, social, cultural, esthetic, and sometimes moral standards of the towns in which they were located. The preservation of historic property was on the agenda of a number of these women’s organizations or of organizations led by women.

Women’s Clubs as Preservation Pioneers

Ann Pamela Cunningham and her Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union is the first of such efforts. As commander in chief of the army during the Revolutionary War, our first president, and the acknowledged Father of Our Country, George Washington looms large in American history. Not surprisingly then, the property most associated with his life should have been deemed worthy of preservation. In 1858 Mrs. Cunningham organized the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Campaigning door to door, the women raised funds sufficient to both purchase and help preserve Mount Vernon, Washington’s stately and beautiful Virginia plantation. Mrs. Cunningham’s efforts at Mount Vernon have earned her a place in preservation history. A major tourist attraction 143 years later, Mount Vernon is still owned and operated by the same ladies’ association established by Ann Pamela Cunningham, the so-called “mother of historic preservation” in America.

New Jersey recognized George Washington in 1896 when local resident Kate McFarlane established the Washington Headquarters Association for the purpose of purchasing and maintaining Rockingham as a “historic shrine.” Rockingham is the Rocky Hill farmhouse where George Washington briefly resided in 1783 while Congress was meeting in Princeton and where legend says he wrote the farewell address to his troops. Princeton resident and philanthropist Josephine Swann purchased the farmhouse from a local quarry on behalf of the Washington Headquarters Association. Although the owners would not sell the property on which the house sat, they did provide an alternate piece of land just up the road making this the first of several times that Rockingham has been moved to ensure its preservation.

Another early women’s organization involved in historic preservation, The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), was established in 1890 with the patriotic purpose of furthering the ideals of the Revolution and commemorating those individuals most influential in the birth of this country. Working through local chapters and state societies, the DAR acquired, restored, and preserved historic sites. The DAR assumed responsibility for Independence Hall, the birthplace of the United States, in 1896, and after two years of fundraising and restoration the second floor was opened for public visitation.

In 1899 the Trenton chapter of the DAR and its regent, Beulah Oliphant, organized a purchase fund for the “Old Colonial and Revolutionary Barracks” in Trenton, N.J., hoping to save this important piece of 18thcentury military history and architecture. The Old Barracks is the sole survivor among five soldiers’ barracks erected in New Jersey during the colonial era to relieve private citizens from the burden of housing troops in their homes. The ladies of the DAR raised $6,314.70 to purchase the building and maintained it until 1917 when it was deeded to the state of New Jersey. The Old Barracks remains an important New Jersey and national landmark thanks to the foresight of Mrs. Oliphant. Today’s Old Barracks Association recognizes the efforts of the DAR in the preservation of this building and maintains an informative exhibit relating how their efforts saved it from probable destruction.

The DAR was also involved in the preservation of the Indian King Tavern located on King’s Highway in Haddonfield, N.J. Built c. 1750, the building is an excellent example of tavern architecture of the 18th century. Indian King Tavern is where the state assembly met in 1777 to pass legislation to officially create New Jersey as an independent state and where, it is believed, the great seal of New Jersey was adopted. The local chapter of the DAR, working in conjunction with the Haddon Fortnightly, a local women’s organization, convinced the state of New Jersey to acquire the building in 1903.

Examples of women working to preserve historic properties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries abound. For example in 1888 Mary Jeffrey Galt organized The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, one of the oldest statewide preservation organization in America. Among the group’s early preservation efforts were Jamestown Island and the powder magazine at Williamsburg, Va. Association member Mrs. Joseph Bryan also organized the Confederate Memorial Literary Society which, in 1896, saved the Richmond, Va., home of Jefferson Davis, also known as the “White House of the Confederacy.” Again, while the efforts of these organizations resulted in the preservation of properties important in the collective history of Virginians, southerners, and Americans, they were properties primarily associated with the male-dominated spheres of politics and war.

Recognizing that men of color also played an important role in the development of this country, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) worked to save the Washington, D.C., home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Upon her death in 1903, his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, donated their estate, Cedar Hill, to the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association with the hope that it would become a “Mount Vernon for African Americans” and a celebration of freedom. The NACW took major responsibility for paying off outstanding debts thereby helping to ensure Cedar Hill’s survival.

Preservation efforts undertaken by women’s clubs have not been limited exclusively to historic properties or the built environment. The New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs (NJSFWC) was a key player in the fight to save the Palisades, the towering rocky cliff formation bordering the Hudson River in northern New Jersey that was, and, in fact, still is threatened by the ravages of quarrying and inevitable development. In 1899 the NJSFWC secured passage of a bill that authorized the creation of a commission to study how the Palisades could be saved. They joined the successful fight to limit development in the Palisades and supported development of Palisades Interstate Park. The NJSFWC was also instrumental in helping to preserve the c. 1750 Blackledge- Kearney house in Alpine Borough which served as the headquarters of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission until 1928. It was subsequently restored by the NJSFWC and opened as a museum in 1933. A two-story stone tower stands in Federation Park, Alpine Borough, erected as a memorial to the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs and their efforts to preserve the natural beauty and integrity of the Palisades.

Engaging Local Governments

Early historic preservation efforts were primarily private in nature. Private citizens employing a variety of fundraising techniques purchased, maintained, and in many cases provided for the future of historic sites. However, the early 20th century saw a significant increase in government involvement in preservation affairs. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave the President of the United States the authority to designate public lands as national monuments, to levy criminal fines for destroying ruins, and to grant permits for scientific and educational institutions to conduct field work. The Historic American Buildings Survey was established during the Depression years as a means of putting unemployed historians and architects to work researching and producing an architectural record of historic properties nationwide. The National Historic Landmarks Program was initiated in the 1930s to celebrate and protect those historic and architectural resources of national significance. A number of states also began to play a bigger role in historic preservation. In New Jersey, for example, the state assumed ownership, maintenance, and interpretation of a number of historic properties statewide including the Indian King Tavern (in 1903), Old Barracks (in 1917), and Rockingham (in 1935). Municipal governments also began to recognize some of the benefits offered to their communities by historic preservation.

In the late 1920s, Susan Pringle Frost of Charleston, S.C., sought the assistance of the municipal government in the regulation and protection of historic properties within Charleston. As the first president of the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwelling Houses, Mrs. Frost was concerned about the preservation of landmark buildings such as the Joseph Manigault house and the Heyward-Washington house which appeared threatened by the ongoing demolition and defacing of historic properties within the city. Decorative ironwork and old woodwork was disappearing from older homes and reappearing in art and museum galleries. Due in part to the urging of Mrs. Frost and the organization that she led, Charleston passed an ordinance in 1929 regulating placement of gas stations, schools, and industrial and commercial properties, thus creating the first historic preservation zoning in America.

A historic district design review board was also created to regulate what changes could be made to the buildings in the district. Anyone who has since visited historic Charleston has been the beneficiary of these forward-thinking initiatives.

Similar efforts were undertaken in New Orleans, La., where Elizabeth Thomas Welein, founder of the Vieux Carre Property Owners Association, lobbied for preservation of the French Quarter of the city. Laid out in 1722 by French military engineer Adrian de Pauger, the grid-like street pattern of the original city slowly took shape, offering thoroughfares lined with the pleasant variety of urban architectural styles and distinctive ironwork characteristic of its Creole population. Mrs. Welein pushed for and won enactment and enforcement of municipal building codes to help preserve the district’s historic old-world charm. In 1937 a local commission was given power to regulate and control building in the French Quarter.

Preserving Her-Story

Women’s sphere of influence has changed radically over time. Once limited to home and family, women are now participating in society to an extent unimaginable to many of their Victorian counterparts. Today’s women vote, hold political office, and are employed in all types and at all levels of business and government, exerting considerable influence over the world we live in. Accordingly, women’s perception of their own history and historical importance has changed with the times. Just as Ann Pamela Cunningham did in the 1850s, women today still seek to protect and preserve those resources they feel have historic value. However, increasingly, properties preserved are celebrating women and their contributions to our past.

Take, for example, Wyoming. Women often enjoyed greater freedom in the frontier towns of the 19th and 20th centuries than they did in more staid and established communities. Maybe that is why in 1869 Wyoming became the first territory or state to legalize women’s right to vote or hold political office. A few months later, county commissioners appointed Esther Hobart Morris of South Pass City as the first female justice of the peace in Wyoming. That controversial appointment also gave Mrs. Morris the distinction of being the first female judge in the United States. Almost 100 years later, while preparing to celebrate the state’s 75th birthday, state legislator Edness Kimball Wilkins started the ball rolling to commemorate and preserve South Pass City as a historic site significant to the history of women. It was an uphill battle with women playing most of the major roles. The Old South Pass Historic Preservation Commission, the Ladies Club of Lander, and other volunteers removed trash and debris from the site, inventoried and cataloged articles removed from the vacant buildings, stabilized and restored buildings, and interpreted the site for visitors. Although not initially supportive -- and even downright hostile at times -- Wyoming’s state government apparently came to understand and appreciate the economic impact of heritage tourism, and in the 1980s began to take a more proactive role in the preservation of South Pass City.

The issue of women’s suffrage also played a role in preserving a site in New Jersey with important connections to women’s history. Alice Paul was a leading suffragist of the 20th century, founder of the National Women’s Party, and author of the first Equal Rights Amendment. The Alice Paul Centennial Foundation, Inc., (APCF) was formed in 1984 with the intent to purchase Alice Paul’s personal papers then available at auction. The unexpected opportunity to purchase Alice Paul’s home in 1990 enabled the APCF to greatly expand its mission. Paulsdale in Mount Laurel, N.J., is the birthplace of Alice Paul and the place where she learned about equality of the sexes as espoused in Quaker philosophy. The house is currently being restored and, when work is completed, Paulsdale will serve as an educational resource center focusing on the life and work of Alice Paul and the women’s suffrage movement. The APCF will also function as an information clearinghouse for issues and projects dealing with the preservation of women’s historic sites.

Historic preservation is an ongoing endeavor, and one that is subject to influence from the people, events, and mores of a continuously changing society. For much of our past, it was primarily men who controlled politics, purse strings, and (as much as we today might hate to admit it) women. Not surprisingly, therefore, the history of women in this country has largely revolved around the struggle to achieve equality of the sexes. While the idea of preserving historic sites has been around for a long time, the realization and acceptance of the idea that some of those properties should also pay tribute to individuals and events significant in women’s history is essentially an idea of the very recent past.

But regardless of whether it’s his story or her story being told, it has largely been the efforts of women, individually or collectively, that have led to preservation of some of our history’s most significant properties.

Publication Date: Spring 2002



#Interpretation #ForumJournal #women

Author(s):Sandra Riccio & Sue Pringle
Volume:16
Issue:3