April 06: Patriot grrls at Mt. Vernon

2016/04/06 § 4 Comments

On this day in 1853 the Ladies Association purchased Mt. Vernon.

Hard to imagine that the shrine-ization of presidential homes has not always been an obvious goal of American historic preservation, but the practice of honoring of US Presidents by preserving their homes as historic monuments didn’t happen until well into the country’s history.  Even a place as hallowed as the home of George Washington was ignored and nearly fell to ruin a half-century after the first President’s death.  By the mid-nineteenth century, government on both the state and federal level had developed an unfortunate squeamishness, if not outright hostility, toward supporting art and architecture that represented the country’s power and promise.  (To which the Founders, responsible for loads of urban, architectural and artistic manifestations from the grand city plan of Washington DC and its buildings to the great paintings by Trumbull that hang in the Capitol rotunda would say, are you kidding me?)

Enter Louise Dalton Bird Cunningham, South Carolina fancylady, who wrote about Mt. Vernon to her daughter (we paraphrase here, but you can still imagine the Ken Burnsesque voiceover): Those morons who run the government can’t get their act together to save this house; it’s time for the girls to get it done.  Her daughter, Ann Pamela Cunningham, got busy, founding the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association to accomplish, at a nationwide grassroots level, what the federal and state government wouldn’t or couldn’t.  Although her gauzy portrait does not suggest that she would be the motivating force behind early American grrl power, Cunningham rallied and motivated women across the US, raising $200,000 to save the building.  (Converting values across the centuries is always risky, but even a lowball estimate values that sum as something like at least $6 million today).

The preservation of the house has been important both in historic and architectural terms, but there’s more to this story.  The Ladies Association was a national one, and it is heartening to see this kind of significant cooperation of North and South here at mid-century, when you think about what else was going on in the country.  The Ladies Association can also be seen as the start of historic preservation movement in the US–neither a small nor unimportant thing.  Americans had already shown themselves willing and able to knock down all kinds of “outmoded” buildings in the name of progress.  In particular, the huge economic development of the 1830s led to the destruction of significant buildings and landscapes from the early national and Colonial periods; it really wasn’t until the twentieth century that the movement began in earnest, following in the dainty but firm footsteps of the Ladies Association.  Also, the story of Mt. Vernon is the first of innumerable similar stories of sites of cultural, architectural and/or historical significance saved by grassroots efforts from mindless development, not to mention fervent, patriotic energies focused on something that matters to Americans, even when the people voted into places of control seem to miss the point.  Occupy Mt. Vernon?

Image: Mt. Vernon, ca. 1860 (from this source)

For a fantastic, recent study of Mt. Vernon that will teach you things you never stopped to wonder about, check out this book.


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