In 1853 Louisa Bird Cunningham was traveling by steamboat down the Potomac River. As the boat passed George Washington’s home, she was shocked and saddened to see its deteriorated condition. Both the U.S Congress and the Commonwealth of Virginia Legislature had refused to entertain the idea that they purchase the home with a view to the restoration and creation of a national monument. In a letter to her daughter, Ann Pamela, Louisa Cunningham wrote that the site of the home made her “painfully depressed. . . . Why was it that the women of this county did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”
Upon reading her mother’s letter, Ann Pamela Cunningham is reported to have exclaimed, “I’ll do it!” She was an unlikely candidate for the job. But the frail 37-year-old spinster, who was plagued by pain from a youthful spinal injury, was determined to see to it that Mount Vernon was preserved for future generations. And so she established the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. And with that, the historic preservation movement began in earnest.
Today the ladies are still at it. The national treasure that is Mount Vernon attracts over 1.1 million visitors a year.The operation is entirely privately funded; the ladies have never received any federal or state funds.
Throughout the history of the preservation movement that Ann Pamela Cunningham inspired, women have been deeply involved, both individually and through their organizations. Wherever there is a historic site, you more than likely will find women an important part of its history and current operation.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Credit for saving the historic site with which I am most familiar, the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City, typically and legitimately goes to two men: George Chapman, the founder who bought the run down house at the death of the last family member in 1933 and ran it for 25 years, and Joseph Roberto, an architect who appeared in 1969 and volunteered to perform a ten-year-long structural restoration, during which time the House was closed.
But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
At the death of George Chapman in 1959, the Merchant’s House board tried desperately to find a way to keep the house afloat. By that time, funds were running low, the house had continued to deteriorate during Chapman’s time, and developers were eager to acquire the property. The board was seriously considering throwing in the towel.
And then in 1963, the Decorators Club of New York City, a women’s group of professional interior decorators, agreed to take the Merchant’s House on as a project. One would suppose that a group of decorators would want to impose their own ideas on the decor. But they didn’t. They felt that the house should be preserved just the way it was in the 19thcentury, and their stewardship reflected that commitment. For five years they raised funds, made stop- gap repairs, conducted tours, reproduced the carpet and the silk curtains, and managed to keep the lights on. They had neither the funds nor the know how to undertake what was necessary to halt the disintegration of the house, but they kept at it, and in 1969, they had the good luck of consulting architect Joseph Roberto, who fell in love with the house and devoted a decade to securing funding and conducting the restoration as a volunteer.
True to their charter, the Decorators Club is still a women’s group. The name of the organization has not changed, but today the members are known officially as interior designers.
They are not interested in historic preservation in general or the Merchant’s House in particular, but there is no doubt whatsoever that the Merchant’s House owes its existence not only to the founder, George Chapman, and the restorer, Joseph Roberto, but to the group of resolute women who called themselves interior decorators and who would not have been at all offended if you called them “ladies.” In fact, Elizabeth Draper, whom the NY Times called “the grand dame of interior design,” and who served as the president of the Decorators Club for two years and was a member of the Museum board for 18, said of herself, “I came along in that lovely ladies’ era of decorating, just before all the talented men began emerging in the field.”
The Merchant’s House is the only existing example of an urban home owned by a member of the merchant elite of New York when that city was the “commercial emporium of the nation.” Without the devotion and stubborn persistence of those lady decorators, one of New York City’s most important historical resources would simply not exist.