The Back Page: Sisterhood of the Ready and Able

The contribution to preservation of those legendary “little old ladies” has been far from little.

I hadn't seen or heard from Jennie Dreher Hazlehurst in years, but when I learned recently that she had died at her home in Columbia, S.C., I felt a real sense of loss.

The two obituaries I read got Jennie exactly right. One of them included a tribute from her daughter—"All of my life, I knew that no matter where I was, she was having more fun than I was"—and an accolade from her son-in-law: "She never took 'no' for an answer, and she accomplished extraordinary things as a result." The other listing was more straightforward, describing Jennie with admirable succinctness and dead-on accuracy as "a figure of ceaseless energy and endless charm" and "a hero of historic preservation."

Jennie was a member of that formidable sorority sometimes dismissed as "little old ladies in tennis shoes." As a label, it's only partially accurate: Many of these ladies did lace up their Nikes before marching off to the fray—but some were born long before the advent of such shoes and were likely to take the field swathed in voluminous petticoats or draped in beady-eyed stone martens, while others of more recent vintage (like Jennie) wouldn't have dreamed of going about their business—even if it included lying down in front of a bulldozer—without being fully arrayed in earrings, high heels, and hairspray.

Whether they wore satins or sweatsuits, they worked some genuine miracles. In San Antonio in the 1920s, when the city's heritage was threatened on all sides, it was a group of women who turned the tide by regaling the city commissioners with a puppet show—a tactic that sounds utterly silly, but it worked. In a very real sense, the women of San Antonio were following in the footsteps of their sisters who, a century earlier, had answered Ann Pamela Cunningham's call to save Mount Vernon—a task that must have seemed impossible in the rancorous political climate of the 1850s, but they did it.

Many of them started small, but their work made waves. Louise du Pont Crowninshield began by restoring her great-grandfather's house in Delaware, then became a widely recognized preservation stalwart who helped shape the National Trust in its formative years. Barbara Capitman fought tirelessly for the art deco buildings of her beloved Miami Beach and, in the process, opened millions of people's eyes to the value of the recent past. Joan Maynard focused her efforts on a long-forgotten place called Weeksville, a historic African American enclave in Brooklyn, but her work on that little patch of ground inspired preservationists all over the country.

Nancy Holmes of Mobile, Ala., once summed up for me the attitude that carried her and her colleagues through years of hard-fought preservation battles: "We were sometimes wrong, but we were never in doubt." In cities and towns from coast to coast, they rallied their neighbors and cajoled clueless officials and obstreperous developers—did, in short, whatever they had to do. Did it while putting up with sniping and condescension from those who didn't share their vision. Did it because they loved their communities, because they wanted to honor the legacy of their forebears, because, as Nancy said, they never doubted that it was the right thing to do. Did it for the benefit of generations unborn—and for us.

There's no marble hall bearing the inscriptions of their names—Susan Pringle Frost and Frances Edmunds of Charleston, Martha Robinson of New Orleans, Joan Dillon of Kansas City, St. Clair Wright of Annapolis, Dana Crawford of Denver; Georgia's Marguerite Williams, Rhode Island's Antoinette Downing, Kentucky's Helen Abell, and others—but their monuments stand on the streets of a thousand communities, where people see, live in, and enjoy them every day.

Some of these heroes are still at work, charming their way to quiet victories and raising holy hell when necessary. God bless them—I say that most sincerely and fervently—and I hope they live forever..

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