Women in Historic Preservation

Women have been an integral part of the preservation movement since it began over 150 years ago. In the interest of saving historic places, these early preservationists embraced the principles of advocacy and volunteer recruitment. The following women shared a common passion for saving historic buildings, tirelessly promoting her cause, and an endless dedication to the preservation movement.

Ann Pamela Cunningham

The beginning of the preservation movement can be traced back to one passionate woman, determined to preserve the historic home of our nation’s first leader, George Washington. In December 1853, after seeing Mount Vernon, the site of George Washington’s home, in a state of neglect, Ann Pamela Cunningham wrote a passionate article appealing “To the Ladies of the south,” and urged them “to secure and retain the home and grave as a sacred spot for all coming time.” 

Her passion led to the creation of America’s first national preservation campaign and the formation of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, a group that is still active today. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the house on February 22, 1860, seven years after Cunningham began her quest to see it saved. The group restored the house and has made alterations and updates throughout the years to keep it occupied over 150 years later.

Jane Jacobs

One of the best-known urban activists of the 20th century is Jane Jacobs, a writer, mother, and above all, Greenwich Village resident. Jacobs used observations from her daily life to develop urban planning principles that countered the destructive new urbanist ideas of her time. In“Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jacobs challenged what she felt was the shortsightedness of modern urban planning. She understood cities needed a mix of old and new buildings, increased density, eyes on the street, and small city blocks to create successful neighborhoods. 

In the late 1960s, Jacobs served as Chair of the Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a project planned to cut through SoHo and Little Italy that would have required the destruction of Washington Square Park and numerous historic buildings.  Her commitment to the cause even led to her arrest in 1968 after she was accused of starting a riot at a public hearing. Her efforts worked, as the project was forgotten.  

Margot Gayle

Margot Gayle came to preservation through her drive to save the threatened Victorian Gothic Jefferson Market Courthouse in the 1950s. Her persistent preservation efforts led to the reopening of the building as Jefferson Market Library ten years later and its designation as part of the Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969. The following year she founded the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture to bring attention to a valuable New York resource that was in danger of demolition. At the time, New York City did not have the active preservation groups that exist today. This group provided a crucial role in the preservation of what has been designated the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District. Margot Gayle organized membership in the group and pushed letter-writing campaigns to bring attention to their cause.

In response to public outrage of the destruction of Pennsylvania Station in 1966, Gayle co-founded the Victorian Society in America. Ultimately unsuccessful in their original campaign, the group is still active today, carrying on Margot Gayle’s spirit of preservation and endless dedication to bringing awareness to the preservation movement.

Adina De Zavala

Many would not have guessed that just over 100 years ago, the barracks at the Alamo were in danger of demolition to make way for a new luxury hotel. Outraged at the possibility, Adina De Zavala, a member of the newly formed Daughters of the Republic of Texas, attempted to purchase the old barrack building before it could be torn down. Without the necessary funds, the group turned to oil heiress, Clara Driscoll, to pay for the majority of the building.

De Zavala quickly found out Driscoll’s hidden agenda to demolish the building for an accessory park to the historic church adjacent to the site. De Zavala barricaded herself in the barracks for three days to protest the destruction without electricity or water, doing interviews through cracks in the walls. Her efforts were documented in the song Remember the Alamo.

Success led to the state retaining control of the building which today houses a museum. Her preservation activities did not stop there. She went on to organize the Texas Historical and Landmarks Association, a group that has placed 38 historical site markers throughout Texas.

As a certified 100% women-owned business and a Small and Women Business Enterprise (S/WBE) in the Central Certification Program (CERT), PVN acknowledges and appreciates the predecessors of the historic preservation movement. 

Stephanie Rouse