By Daphne Howland, originally published 2014
Women have been a critical force not only in saving key buildings but also in changing the city’s approach to its historic fabric.
The American historic preservation movement owes much to women’s volunteer efforts, and the Portland area is no different. The effort often recognized as the first major preservation movement was Ann Pamela Cunningham’s campaign to save George Washington’s Virginia farm, Mount Vernon.
Today we accept the importance of keeping George Washington’s home as a national treasure, but that wasn’t true in the 19th century when the farm’s future was in doubt. Cunningham formed the Mount Vernon’s Ladies Association, which includes a regent and vice regent from each state and oversees the farm to this day, after receiving a note from her mother in 1853 that read, “If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can't the women of America band together to save it?”
“Of course, what we need to remember about women in preservation is that women have been crucial to the movement since the beginning in this country,” says Earle Shettleworth. “In Portland, there’s a long tradition of women playing pivotal roles in the preservation of our past. Probably the first person we would cite would be Ann Longfellow Pierce.”
Pierce was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s sister, who turned down a generous purchase offer on the house that still stands in Portland today, because the would-be buyer was planning to tear it down. Meanwhile, Shettleworth says, in 1908, Margaret Mussey Sweat deeded her home, the McClellen House, to the Portland Society of Art, and for many years she served as Maine’s vice regent to the Mount Vernon’s Ladies Association.
It was Edith Sills who formed the Sills Committee after the destruction of Union Station in 1961 and launched the movement here.
“Mrs. Sills was the wife of the president of Bowdoin at the time, and that’s important because it meant that she had this huge constituency of Bowdoin alumni in the city of Portland,” said Jane Moody, who was active in the formation and early years of Landmarks, project director of Landmarks’ Portland book, and co-author of her own book, Presenting Portland. “They understood the value of saving old buildings, but the city of Portland did not. It was the period of ‘model cities’ when it was easier to tear down than restore or repair.”
Moody said that the women who were involved in the movement in those days were less likely to have jobs once they were married and so devoted their time to volunteering. The preservation movement took a lot of activism, and Moody thought that women may have been more suited to the fight because many of the men didn’t like the controversy that preservation activism sometimes required. “Maybe we were a little braver, I don’t know,” Moody said. “I think the city is more aware now. It certainly isn’t the battle it was in the 1960s.”
While the women involved in these influential days of preservation at Landmarks might not have had a job, they were nevertheless educated and strong organizers, says Pam Plumb, Landmarks’ first executive director, who has also served as Portland’s mayor and has been highly active in helping shape its development.
“Not that men didn’t, but there were women who brought a lot of brainpower to the table,” says Plumb. “It was the Junior League that brought on the executive director, that formed the committees. These women were good and they were smart and they did high quality work. When they printed a book, they printed a high quality book. Women were in control and showing leadership and using energy and making things happen.”
Marylee Dodge was the member of the Junior League who was instrumental in the group choosing Landmarks as the organization that would receive its formidable resources.
“I think that there were a lot of nonprofits that were almost like ladies clubs and they were more interested in what you had for tea when you had a meeting,” Dodge says. “I was a member of the Junior League and whenever we took on a new project, usually to help a nonprofit out of a jam, we’d usually pick two possible projects and a member of the committee would research one and argue for it. I was the chair of the committee that was looking into Landmarks and the How House project. I was a history major in college and always enjoyed history, and my husband and his family were old house buffs. I argued for Landmarks’ project over the other one, which I can’t remember what it was. They needed some money and someone to give them the impetus to make a name for themselves.”