Women’s Heritage

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.

Gertrude Stein in Baltimore

Posted on: March 18th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Gertude Stein, age 23, attending to her medical studies in the basement of the Baltimore home. (Credit: Baltimore Style)

Gertude Stein, age 23, attending to her medical studies in the basement of the Baltimore home. (Credit: Baltimore Style)

I have explored the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore a lot since moving to the city eight months ago.  After nearly 18 years in Chicago -- a city that sprawls for nearly 230 square miles -- this National Landmark Historic District feels compact, yet grand.  Although I grew up in Montgomery County and have never lived in Baltimore, this is a homecoming of sorts.  My great-grandparents settled in Baltimore in the mid-19th century, and my father (now 90) grew up here and lives here today.  Also, my grandfather’s most famous cousin, Gertrude Stein, made her home in Baltimore while attending medical school.

With this history in mind, I recently made a pilgrimage to 215 E. Biddle Street in Mount Vernon, where Gertrude lived with her brother Leo from 1897 to1900 while she attended Johns Hopkins. According to a recent article in Baltimore Style magazine by Deborah Rudacille, Gertrude “set up housekeeping with her brother Leo. . . at 215 E. Biddle St., near where the future Duchess of Windsor would later reside.  A photograph of Stein, age 23, in her study at the house shows a human skull perched atop a tall pile of books glowering at her as she bends over a microscope, absorbed in her work.”

215 E. Biddle Street, Baltimore, MD (Credit: Baltimore Style)

215 E. Biddle Street, Baltimore, MD (Credit: Baltimore Style)

Today the building bears a plaque noting that Gertrude and Leo lived there, and on the quiet afternoon I visited it was easy to imagine her bustling up the marble Victorian steps on a cool spring day to her books inside.  It is interesting to visit a site Gertrude Stein occupied before she became an icon, a quietly historical building known only because of what its famous resident went on to achieve.  Although Gertrude did not finish her medical training, her keen sense of observation, particularly of the lives of women of various classes and races in Baltimore, formed the basis for her first major (published) work, Three Lives.  A collection of three novellas, this book tells the story of two immigrant women and an African American woman living in a mid-sized American port city.  This work seems to tell us that Gertrude Stein certainly carried a bit of Baltimore with her to Paris.

-Phoebe Stein Davis

Phoebe Stein Davis is Executive Director of the Maryland Humanities Council.

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.

Widow of the South: Carrie McGavock

Posted on: March 16th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Carrie McGavork (credit: Carnton Historic Plantation, Franklin TN)

Carrie McGavock (credit: Carnton Historic Plantation, Franklin, TN)

It seems appropriate that Carrie McGavock would be the subject of a blog during Woman’s History Month. For like most women in history she was pretty much left out until recently. One of the reviews of a novel I wrote based on her life, described her as “The most famous Southern woman you never heard of.” He got that right.

When Carrie died in 1905, my favorite of her many eulogies and obituaries worded it best, “Those of us who recall the hours as they became days, the two feet of blood on her skirts and the blood up to her elbows, how she ceased to care for herself as she cared over the dying and how she spent the remainder of her life caring over the dead, we, and all generations after us will rise up and call her Blessed.” Truth is, with the passage of time, we didn’t even rise up and call her “Carrie.” She joined all the women before her and since who have been lost to memory and history.

Carrie Winder McGavock never envisioned her life or deeds to be worthy of remembrance by anyone beyond those she had loved and touched. For if truth be known, she really did nothing more than what women have done throughout the ages, what has always been expected of them. You see men go to war and then women – mothers, wives, daughters and the like – are left to pick up the pieces, to mend, to heal, to bury, to mourn, to remember. Her story, as it unfolded in her home, Carnton, during those five bloodiest hours of the Civil War is not unlike the story of all women, black and white, north and south during those four years of America’s blood bath. Beyond maybe the sheer magnitude of the carnage per hour, there is little that might distinguish her work from all the others before and after her, save for maybe the cemetery – the largest private military cemetery ever created in America – there, in her backyard. And then how she never forgot, spending the rest of her life simply remembering.

That is the power of her story, that she did not forget those who died at Franklin – in her home, on her lawn, in her and her neighbors’ fields.

The Widow of the South

The Widow of the South

Several years ago I had the opportunity to tell her story to Dolly Parton when Dolly was using my cabin for her album photography. Dolly, one of the smartest folks I’ve ever known, got the importance of Carrie’s story when I said that only she, among all of Williamson County, would have more obituaries when she died than Carrie had. She thoughtfully replied, “Yes, but never forget; I had to leave home to get them.”

In the end, that may just be the power of Carrie McGavock’s story and the story of that place, Carnton. She did what was expected and required of her. She did it with little thought or hope of praise or remembrance. She was simply faithful to history and her circumstances. And in so doing, she’s as good a reason as I can give you for Women’s History Month.

--Robert Hicks

Robert Hicks, author of Widow of the South and A Guitar and a Pen will present the Special Lecture on Friday, October 16, at the National Preservation Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. For more information about the conference, visit http://www.preservationnation.org/resources/training/npc/.

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.