Women’s Heritage

"Saving and Celebrating" the Treasures of Women's History

Posted on: March 1st, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Dwight Young

In recognition of its significance, then First Lady Laura Bush chose Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House as the site for her 2002 debut appearance as Save America’s Treasures’ honorary chair.

Have you joined our campaign to save the Save America’s Treasures program? I hope so – because it’s worth saving, believe me.

Created more than a decade ago, SAT has been cut out of the proposed federal budget for next year. That’s bad news – really bad news – because this program, in addition to boosting the economy in communities all over the country and creating thousands of jobs, has helped preserve more than 1,100 important places, documents, collections and works of art. Quirky and wonderful, inspiring and surprising, beautiful and not so much, these things link us with the people, events and ideas that shaped American history and culture. In a very real sense, they’re us – and if that’s not worth preserving, what is?

Now that Women’s History Month is upon us, it’s worth noting that SAT has played a key role in saving and celebrating a great many treasures associated with women. Some of them involve bona fide icons: the Alabama birthplace of Helen Keller got an SAT grant, for instance, as did the Massachusetts house where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived; the long-forgotten Washington, DC, office once occupied by Clara Barton; the archives of legendary dancer Martha Graham; a collection of clothing that belonged to Dolley Madison; and the homes of reclusive poet Emily Dickinson and the decidedly un-reclusive (and famously unsinkable) Molly Brown.

Other SAT-funded projects evoke names that are, well, less familiar. Josephine Wright Chapman, for instance, is not exactly a household name – but she was one of America’s earliest female architects, and an SAT grant went to a building she designed in Worcester, Mass., that is now a popular venue for civic events and performances. Grants were also awarded to the Madame C. J. Walker Urban Life Center in Indianapolis, a living memorial to the life and achievements of the entrepreneur and philanthropist who became the nation’s first black female millionaire; the Washington home of Mary Church Terrell, the first African-American woman to sit on an American school board and the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women; and a Delaware estate called Gibraltar, which boasts a garden designed by pioneering female landscape architect Marian Coffin.

I can’t claim to have seen all of these treasures – but I have visited Val-Kill a couple of times, and it always blows me away. Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my personal heroes, you see, and Val-Kill is the place that evokes her personality most clearly. It’s a grandmotherly sort of place with mismatched chairs in the dining room, a narrow wooden bed on the sleeping porch, and framed photographs everywhere – a place that was obviously lived in by someone who cared more about life than about decor. Val-Kill offered Mrs. Roosevelt, for the first time in her life, a place that was truly her own, and she made it a retreat where she could enjoy the company of close friends – and offer simple meals and stimulating conversation to the world leaders who came to call in a steady stream. It’s a wonderfully engaging place, and Save America’s Treasures has provided major funding over the years to help keep it intact and alive.

You want treasures? I got your treasures right here. We’ve all got them, in fact. They’re in every part of the country from Hawaii to Maine, ready to welcome and inform and inspire us – thanks in large part to this program that’s WAY too good to lose.

Save America's Treasures, Preserve America, and the other programs cut or underfunded by the proposed federal budget do more than preserve our country's rich heritage – they put Americans to work. Learn more about the National Trust's campaign to restore this critical funding.

Dwight Young joined the staff of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1977. He currently serves as senior communications associate and writes the regular 'Back Page' feature in Preservation magazine.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

The Power of Women Volunteers

Posted on: March 30th, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

A Place

A Place that Matters: The D.C. Headquarters of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs

My first job in D.C. was in a big corporate office on the twelfth floor of a building in Dupont Circle.

It was exactly what one would expect when coming to work in the big city. What one rarely expects, though, is that a few years - and a few job moves - later, one returns to the same neighborhood where that first job was located to work in a bona fide piece of history. That's right; every day I come to work in a building with a grand staircase and murals brought from Paris in the 1850s. I also walk right past a lace bonnet that was worn by Lucretia Mott. (Yes, that Lucretia Mott…abolitionist, social reformer and proponent of women’s rights!)

This overwhelming sense of history and the energy it creates are exactly what the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) is about. Since the Federation was formed in 1890, so much has happened that it’s hard to believe more people don’t know (and love) this organization.

GFWC was the brainchild of Jane Cunningham Croly, a pioneering journalist who thought women and their ideas were worth something substantial. Since its founding, the organization has had a very serious focus on philanthropy, social and political advocacy, and community leadership. This focus has paid off throughout GFWC’s history; accomplishments during its first century include establishing 75% of the country's public libraries, developing kindergartens in public schools, and working for food and drug regulation.

During its second century, the Federation has pledged to maintain its commitment to working for a better world. With "Unity in Diversity" as our motto and a strong umbrella of programs that clubs can adapt to suit the needs of their communities, GFWC encourages the flexibility that has enabled it to expand its reach in a rapidly-changing society. GFWC programs and projects focus on the major issues of our time - supporting women’s health, preserving natural resources, promoting literacy and equality, and encouraging volunteer service. Our programs are structured to enable member clubs to harness the vast resources of our international membership to address the emerging needs of their individual communities.

One of the most enduring issues for GFWC has been conservation, both of natural resources and of historic buildings, objects and art. From the very beginning, the work of the Federation has been recorded and preserved in a formal archive that dates back to 1889 and tracks the chronological development of the organization. This archive - the Women’s History and Resource Center - is housed within GFWC’s most important piece of history: 1734 N Street NW, our headquarters and a National Historic Landmark.

Our new partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation fits in perfectly with our conservation program, and we have been working on sending volunteers for the National Trust’s Rebuilding Together New Orleans project, as well as spreading the word about the This Place Matters campaign.

GFWC's headquarters matters to the more than 100,000 members of the Federation who take special pride in donating art and artifacts to be a part of our collection. The building is an important part of local architectural history, and the activities recorded in GFWC’s archives are important to the national history of women and women volunteers.

Yes, this place mattes, and our clubwomen, friends and supporters are committed to protecting and preserving it.

- Nikki Willoughby

Nikki Willoughby is the senior director of public affairs at the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

Examining the Life of Mary Todd Lincoln

Posted on: March 27th, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

Mary Todd Lincoln, c. 1863 (Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Mary Todd Lincoln, c. 1863 (Credit: Library of Congress)

Mary Todd Lincoln, a deeply controversial figure of her day, continues to draw an intense amount of public interest, sympathy and even scorn. As much as we continue to debate Abraham Lincoln and his presidency, so too do we dissect his wife's actions and role in the overall Lincoln story.

Mary Lincoln was intelligent and highly educated (fluent in French, she received ten years of formal schooling to Lincoln's aggregate one year), with a well-connected family (Dolley Madison was a kinswoman and Henry Clay a neighbor and family friend), and had a keen interest in politics. Mary was one of the first to see the promise in Abraham Lincoln and, to her family's initial dismay, wed the prairie lawyer who was virtually unknown, unrefined, and lacking formal education and familial and political connections. Not unlike other first ladies, Mary Lincoln appears to have been intimately involved in Lincoln's political career, even at a time when overt involvement in politics by females was regarded as inappropriate or unwelcome.

It cannot be denied that when the Lincolns arrived in Washington, D.C., they entered a social and political minefield as the Civil War loomed. Opponents wasted no time deriding and ridiculing the Lincolns. Not unlike celebrity gossip rags today, the public gobbled up outrageous stories about Mary Lincoln, always eager for more. But for every sensational story - whether based in truth or not - published about Mary, you can find a redeeming one that drew little press attention. And for every judgment of Mary, you can find a great deal of context that's omitted.

Much is made of Mary's spending habits, but little is made of her frequent visits to hospitals to bring supplies and to help care for wounded soldiers. Fewer know of Mary Lincoln's letter to her husband requesting $200 to be donated to Elizabeth Keckley's Contraband Relief Association (CRA). The Lincolns' $200 donation was the largest donation received that year by the CRA, which provided relief to formerly-enslaved African Americans who had fled to the District after the D.C. Emancipation Act was passed in April 1862.

With her patriotism frequently questioned, Mary was called a traitor and a spy in large part because of her Kentucky roots and her Confederate family members. The theme of divided family is integral to the Civil War story, and was experienced first hand by the Lincolns while they were living at the Cottage. Yet Mary never publicly mourned the loss of her siblings who died fighting for the Confederacy, once saying in private, “They would kill my husband if they could, and destroy our government - the dearest of all things to us.”

Like all humans, Mary Lincoln had her faults and weaknesses. Her faults cannot be denied, but her strengths and admirable qualities deserve equal attention.

President Lincoln's Cottage, a National Trust Historic Site, strives to offer a balanced story of the Lincolns and their time at the Soldiers' Home. For those interested in learning more about Mary Lincoln, we welcome you to join us in May for Cottage Conversations, during which Catherine Clinton will talk about her new book, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life. Click here for more event information.

-Erin Carlson Mast

Erin Carlson Mast is the curator at President Lincoln's Cottage, a National Trust Historic Site.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

Protecting the Story of Juana Briones & Her California Gem

Posted on: March 25th, 2009 by Guest Writer 7 Comments

 

Juana Briones (Credit: National Park Service's Point Reyes National Seashore Archives)

Juana Briones (Credit: National Park Service's Point Reyes National Seashore Archives)

On March 12, 1802, Juana Briones y Tapia de Miranda was born in Villa de Branciforte (present-day Santa Cruz), which was one of three secular villas in Alta California.

Juana’s father, a Spanish corporal, was a participant in both the 1769 Portola and the 1775-76 De Anza Expeditions. In 1812, the Briones Family moved north to the Presidio de San Francisco, and in 1820, Juana married Apolinario Miranda in Yerba Buena (current-day San Francisco), where she mothered 11 children between 1821-1841. In San Francisco, the Briones Family operated a dairy farm in what is now North Beach. In addition to being a rancher, Juana was a curandera, or a practitioner of traditional medicines, and was highly regarded by both early Californios and American settlers.

In 1822, Alta California shifted hands from Spanish rule to Mexican, and although the territory changed hands politically, little changed in regard to individual land ownership. In 1843-44, Juana purchased for $300 a 4,442-acre parcel (known as Rancho La Purísima Concepción) from Neophyte Indian José Gorgonio in the Palo Alto hills. Still standing today, the wood-framed, rammed-earth and adobe brick house is believed to have been built by American desertee sailors.

Juana Briones House, c. 1890 (Credit: Palo Alto Historical Association Archives)

Juana Briones House, c. 1890 (Credit: Palo Alto Historical Association Archives)

With the incorporation of Mexican California into the United States, land ownership for many early Californios was challenged by the requirement of proof of ownership. In keeping her rancho, Juana hired the best attorney in California, Henry Wager Halleck, and with her rich ancestry proved ownership to both the Land Commission and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856, which allowed her to retain her property. At a time when American women could not own land, Juana’s case was unique, setting a precedent for other early settlers. In 1884, Juana moved to Mayfield (now Palo Alto), and eventually died in 1889 at the age of 87.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and Juana lives on in the ambition of local preservationists who are fighting to save her 165-year-old house. Designated a California State Historical Landmark in 1954, the house has sat abandoned in an affluent neighborhood for over ten years, open to the elements and suffering from earthquake damage. In 2007, it was threatened by the possibility of demolition, which encouraged twenty volunteers to document the building with a Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).

Just as Juana fought for custody of her lands, preservationists today continue to fight for her story in the hope of saving this early California gem.

- Corri Jimenez

Corri Jimenez received her master's degree from the University of Oregon in historic preservation. In 2007, she led a volunteer HABS documentation project on the Juana Briones House. She currently works as a preservation consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information on Juana Briones, see "Juana Briones of 19th Century California" by Jeanne Farr McDonnell (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008) or visit online.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

Marin Cruger Coffin, First Female Landscape Architect

Posted on: March 20th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

 

Gibralter Gardens, Wilmington, Delaware (Credit: Trent Margrif, Wisconsin Field Office)

Gibralter Gardens, Wilmington, Delaware (Credit: Trent Margrif, Wisconsin Field Office)

It was perfect timing for an important collaboration.

Marin Cruger Coffin, 1876-1957, one of the first female landscape architects to practice in the United States, was receiving her degree from MIT and learning from the father of America landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmstead.  Mr. & Mrs. H. Rodney Sharp had just taken over the Gibraltar (former Brinckle) estate in Wilmington, Delaware and were looking for someone to design their dream landscape, likely following a suggestion from Henry Francis DuPont.

Recalling images from their frequent European travels, the Sharps hired landscape architect Coffin to design Gibraltar's formal gardens. One of the most accomplished female landscape architects in the United States; she designed gardens and landscapes along the East Coast, including Winterthur's formal gardens and the University of Delaware's mall among others.

Gibralter Gardens, Wilmington, Delaware (Credit: Trent Margrif, Wisconsin Field Office)

Gibralter Gardens, Wilmington, Delaware (Credit: Trent Margrif, Wisconsin Field Office)

When Coffin arrived at Gibraltar, she was presented with a "blank slate": a Brandywine Blue Granite blockhouse above a rolling open field. The topography of the site lent itself to the terraced garden she created between 1916 and 1923.  Gibraltar's garden consists of a series of garden "rooms," each with a unique character and purpose.  Hand-forged iron gates and railings and the Sharp's collection of statuary, urns, and fountains complete the design. I personally enjoy the Bald Cypress Allee that culminates in a simple teahouse structure for the greatest solitude and appreciation of Coffin’s work when visiting the gardens. Often called the “secret garden” in the city, with the accompanying mansion and outbuildings, this landscape is reflective of America's "Country Place Era," which spanned the time between the rise of the Beaux Arts in the late 1800s and the outbreak of World War II.

With threat of demolition, Preservation Delaware, Inc. purchased the Gibraltar site with the assistance of Open Space funding through the State of Delaware. An authentic restoration of the Gibraltar Gardens following Coffin’s design was the first priority and was accomplished. The garden continues to retain its design intent, including its forms and textures, free and open to the public and beautifully maintained by Preservation Delaware’s current Garden Manager Wendy Gentry.

Repairs to the sculptures within the formal Gardens have also benefited from the Save Outdoor Sculpture program and increased awareness through the Landslide program of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Preservation Delaware is committed to preserving the legacy of Marian Cruger Coffin through its operation of Gibraltar Gardens.  For more information or to help in these efforts go to: http://www.preservationde.org/.

-Trent Margrif

Trent Margrif is director of the Wisconsin field office of National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.