Remembering Louise Crowninshield

  

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The Louise duPont Crowninshield Award is the highest award given by the National Trust for excellence in historic preservation. Yet the current generation of preservation professionals knows very little about the woman for whom this award is named. Not only was she actively involved in the creation of the historic preservation movement in Delaware, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., she worked tirelessly on behalf of the National Council of Historic Sites and Buildings as it struggled to establish what later became the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Mrs. Crowninshield`s story is more interesting if you have a face to put with a name and a bit of background about her personality. According to John Sweeney, former assistant to the director of Winterthur Museum, who first met Mrs. Crowninshield when he was a very young man in 1953:

"Louise Crowninshield had a great capacity for erasing age differences. She liked to wear big, splashy floral print dresses, and wore the huge hats and furs that went along with the times. Her bearing was truly that of a Grande Dame. People were deferential to her, but not intimidated. People of all ages just loved her. You would never know if you saw her that she had such refined taste. The delicate colors and Sheraton furniture were at odds with her stout figure."

On the occasion of Mrs. Crowninshield`s death in 1958 Walter Muir Whitehall began a memorial booklet which captures her wonderful qualities. In it he writes:

"One had to move fast to keep up with her...Although she was genuinely modest and extremely tactful in everything she did, there was no room in her scheme of things for indecision, useless and protracted discussion, mawkish sentiment, or parochial attachment to the second rate. Although Louise was a conservative and a true preservationist, she saw no reason why things should be done as they always had been if that way were stupid."

Antiques and Historic House Museums
Louise duPont was born in Delaware in 1877. A member of a large and civic-minded extended family with a strong interest in the arts, she was married to Francis Boardman Crowninshield of Massachusetts for almost 50 years.

Mrs. Crowninshield`s life as a preservationist began in earnest in 1924 when she became the owner of Eleutherian Mills, her grandparents` home on the Brandywine River. The house Louise loved overlooked the site of the original black powder mills (see note below) which formed the basis of what has become the world-renowned corporation, DuPont. The house had been lived in by succeeding generations of her family from 1807 to 1890 when it was badly damaged by an explosion in the powder mill.

Louise and her husband restored the house, conferring often, it seems, with her brother and neighbor, Henry Francis duPont, who lived at nearby Winterthur. While Francis Crowninshield set about turning the steep bank below the house into a fashionably-styled "Italian Renaissance Garden," his wife furnished and rehabilitated the lovely old house. Today Eleutherian Mills, as part of Hagley Museum, remains much as it was in their lifetime, presenting the appearance of a comfortable and inviting place for living and entertaining.

Mrs. Crowninshield`s next adventure in historic preservation was Kenmore, in Fredericksburg, Va., the home of George Washington`s sister. In 1931 she was appointed Delaware regent of the Kenmore Association. Along with her friend, Bertha King Benkard, an authority on early American antiques, she was instrumental in furnishing the house with American antiques.

Mrs. Crowninshield`s work with Kenmore added to her reputation as a person who could get things done and led to her association with Wakefield, George Washington`s birth-place. Charles Peterson says:

"Louise was very good to the National Park Service when Wakefield was developed. She contributed all the furniture. That project wasn`t a success, as Wakefield was a kind of fiction, but Louise also furnished the house at the Salem National Maritime Site. She told me one time that the best way to guarantee a house`s survival was to furnish it beautifully because people might not notice the architecture but they would come and you could charge admission fees. Louise always gave more than money. She gave ideas. She was a skilled strategist and knew her people politics and where to put money."

By 1941 Louise was actively involved with Kenmore, Wakefield, and several other preservation efforts and was becoming interested in Rockefeller`s work in Williamsburg. It is hard to imagine how she juggled so many balls at the same time, but from all reports she did it gracefully. John Sweeney recalls, "Everywhere she went she got interested in every-thing around her." He reminds us that Louise and her husband, Francis Boardman Crowninshield, traveled with the seasons. They were in Wilmington primarily in May, June, and October, went to Boston for "the season," then wintered in Florida.

Many famous individuals of the preservation movement were entertained at Eleutherian Mills. Louise`s relatives, the Lairds and the Sharps, were also involved in historic preservation with projects in New Castle and Odessa, Del., and the family was acquainted with the Rockefellers who were responsible for Williamsburg and the Clarks of Cooperstown. Texas philanthropist Ima Hogg and the well-known collector Electra Webb were Louise`s friends. Her brother H.F. duPont was creating a world-class decorative arts museum. It seemed, indeed, like a "brave new world," and the synergy must have been very exciting.

Charles Peterson remembers: "I was a guest at her home many times. She had several homes and a big staff... When I was also an officer of the Society of Architectural Historians, she entertained two hundred people for lunch. You would think it would have been catered, but she said she could do it herself with her staff."

Family was important to Louise. She wrote often to her brother, hosted family parties, and put several young relatives through school. She reportedly once said, "I have never had any children of my own, but I excel in nieces!"

National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings

In 1947 the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings was formed as a membership organization to increase interest in historic preservation throughout the United States. Its bylaws provided that the board of the National Council would organize and incorporate the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States, and take title to historic properties and raise funds for their upkeep.

The council`s first official meeting was held Tuesday October 21, 1947, at the National Gallery of Art. Mrs. Crowninshield attended the meeting and reported on experiences encountered in her restoration work.

Her speech, which laid out her theories of historic preservation, was well received and contains practical advice still useful to curators of house museums today. She illustrated her points by referring to sever-al historic houses she was involved with in New England, including the Derby House and the Pingrey House.

The newly formed National Council asked Mrs. Crowninshield to join its Committee of Standards and Surveys which had the important job of determining what standards ought to govern the selection of the historic sites and buildings to be supported by the National Council and the proposed National Trust. Several years later Mrs. Crowninshield was in charge of the Ways and Means Committee. The National Council`s membership of 100 member organizations and nearly 500 private individuals was created largely through her efforts. In 1951 the National Council elevated Mrs. Crowninshield from board member to vice president.

By 1949 the National Council`s lobbying for the creation of a National Trust similar to that of Great Britain was bearing fruit. In October 1949, President Harry Truman signed legislation creating the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When the executive committee of the National Council met at the National Gallery of Art on November 30, 1949, considerable discussion was held on the matter of trustees for the newly formed National Trust. The list of names proposed by the National Council was indeed formidable, and included Dwight Eisenhower, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, both John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Sr., and others. The committee agreed that among the first to be approached would be Louise Crowninshield.

On October 14, 1949, the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings held its third annual meeting in Williamsburg, Va. Louise was an honored guest speaker. A cousin`s wife, Pamela Copeland, who later became a National Trust board member, recalls this meeting:

"Louise had a wonderful sense of humor. She spoke well and with authority and held the audience in the palm of her hand, even while she looked all around and asked what slides were on the screen, as they were difficult to see from her position.... She had a very nice human relationship with any group she was involved in."

The first real meeting of the National Trust for Historic Preservation was held May 1, 1950, at the Octagon House in Washington, D.C., and the outspoken Louise Crowninshield helped set the tone for the new organization`s policy of non-discrimination. The transcript of proceedings shows a thoughtful discussion of the issue, especially regarding the acquisition of certain properties whose owners believed in placing restrictions on who could tour the property. Another committee member, Mr. Davidson, felt strongly that the Trust should have a non-discrimination clause in writing. Louise backed him up completely. Always forthright, she was shocked that anyone would consider discriminating against a visitor to a public building. It became one of the first official policies of the National Trust for Historic Preservation that it would not accept properties under those kind of restrictions.

In 1950, after almost 50 years of marriage, Francis Crowninshield died and John Sweeney tells us:

"They had been planning for their 50th wedding anniversary when he died. Louise used the money she had been setting aside for their anniversary celebration to buy curtains for the Lee Mansion. It was, in a way, a tribute to his memory."

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust and the National Council existed side by side for several years until the dual membership and overlap-ping functions became too confusing even for the founding members, and in 1952, the boards of both organizations approved a merger of the council into the National Trust. The merger became effective a year later and the National Trust became a membership organization and assumed all other functions of the National Council.

At the meeting when the merger was approved, Mrs. Crowninshield was asked to become the last president of the National Council. Louise declined, saying, "I came in just to help in a humble way and really, I have too many other things besides. I don`t mind doing the committees, but I think that is enough."

After further urging, she added, "I don`t think it is suitable; I am old-fashioned. I think a committee position should be held by a man."

Despite her demurrals, Mrs. Crowninshield was elected by acclamation. And so, Louise Crowninshield became president of the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings, as well as a prominent member of the Board of Trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Much of the meeting was taken up with a protracted discussion of what the name of the merged organization would be. Louise, always forthright and practical, said:

"I don`t think there is one person in ten million, if we had that many subscribers- unfortunately we don`t-who cares what they belong to as long as it has some simplified name. They say, `That thing with the impossible name! I can`t ever remember what it is!` I don`t think they care...The people who belong, the ones I have seen, and I have seen and talked with a great many of them, will not care and do not care in the least how we are organized. They care about our objects [sic]."

In November of that year, Mrs. Crowninshield presided over the sixth annual meeting of the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings. The merger of the two organizations was voted upon and unanimously carried.

The first board of trustees meeting of the National Trust was held in the boardroom, 712 Jackson Place N.W., Washington, D.C., with Mr. David Finley, chairman, Board of Trustees, presiding. Among the many suggestions Louise Crowninshield made at that meeting was that each board member should carry a little pad of tear-out membership forms with the National Trust logo and a slogan saying, "This is a national requirement-Everybody must help the Trust."

Another suggestion she made was that the Trust`s board go on record as trying to get "either a directive from the President or a bill passed through Congress put-ting the State Rooms of the White House under the jurisdiction of the Commission of Fine Arts or a committee appointed by them and removing it from the jurisdiction of the President or the occupants of the White House."

In October 1956 the merger and changing of the guards was complete. By then, Mrs. Crowninshield was ill with cancer, and it was evident to those who knew her that Louise was not in good health. In 1957 the 11th annual meeting of the National Trust was deliberately held in Swampscott, Mass., near her home in Marblehead, partly because her long-term partners in preservation wished to honor Louise for her lifelong commitment and many contributions to historic preservation. Unwilling to miss the fun and no doubt enjoying every minute of the event, Mrs. Crowninshield insisted on hosting all 400 conference attendees at a luncheon at her home. She died a year later.

Her friend and colleague David Finley later wrote:

"...the members wished to express their admiration of Mrs. Francis B. Crowninshield, Vice Chairman of the National Trust, who had filled such an important role in the preservation movement in New England and throughout this country. It was her last appearance at a Trust meeting."

"It is in her memory that the trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation established the Louise duPont Crowninshield Award for distinguished achievement in the field of historic preservation. A special endowment fund was provided by Mrs. Crowninshield`s friends, the income to be used to finance the program."

Louise Crowninshield was larger than life in many ways. She had a real career as a historic preservationist in a day when women of her class did not "work." She worked faithfully on numerous preservation projects without pay through-out her life, and far beyond the point when most salaried individuals would have retired, to ensure a legacy for all of us.

Kim Burdick has been a Delaware member of the Board of Advisors to the National Trust for Historic Preservation since 1991. She was the founder of the Delaware Folklike Project and a founding board member of Preservation Delaware. She was recently awarded a joint Hagley/Winterthur Fellowship in Arts & Industry to continue her research on Louise duPont Crowninshield.

NOTE
The building and property remained the property of the DuPont Company until the powder yards were closed in 1921. When the house was offered for sale, Henry Algernon duPont purchased the house for his daughter, Louise Crowninshield. For a beautifully illustrated glimpse of Eleutherian Mills, see Souther Accents, May-June 1987, vol. 10, issue 3. Pages 128-137. Written by Maureen Quimby, photography by Van Jones Martin.

SOURCES

  • Interviews by the author:
    Pamela Copeland, Dec. 6, 1999
    Charles Peterson, Nov. 29, 1999
    John Sweeney, June 14, 1999
  • Publications:
    Whitehall, Walter Muir. Louise du Pont Crowninshield 1877-1958. Winterthur, Del. 1960. Elizabeth D. Mulloy. The History of the National Trust for Historic Preservation 1963-1973. Preservation Press, Washington, D.C. 1976.
  • Materials from the National Trust Archives, McKeldon Library, University of Maryland, including:
    Hosmer Papers. Transcript of proceedings of National Council for Historic Sites and Properties, Dinner Meeting, Oct. 20, 1947. Minutes of Executive Board Meeting, National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings, Nov. 30, 1949. Transcript of proceeding, National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States, May 1, 1950. Proceedings of Executive Board Meeting, National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings, Oct. 13, 1952. Minutes of Board of Trustees Meeting, National Trust for Historic Preservation, November 14, 1952.