A Woman's Place
Suffrage Headquarters Restored With Vital Federal Grant
By Elizabeth McNamara | Online Only | Mar. 1, 2010
When Marty Langelan joined the National Woman's Party in 1997, its headquarters in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., had squirrels in the attic, rats in the cellar, and termites in the wooden beams.
"The house was a wreck," says Langelan, who served as party president from 1999 until 2005. "It was a disaster area, and we knew we were on a short timeline to fix it."
Known as the Sewall-Belmont House, the 200-year-old brick mansion was one of the first buildings erected in Washington—and looked like it, too. Rodents and bugs weren't the only problem. Its oak windows were deteriorating, the Mansard roof needed replacing, pipes leaked, and the basement regularly flooded, Langelan remembers. "It was the only surviving suffrage building completely intact, but I knew it wouldn't be intact for much longer if we didn't get help fast."
In 1999, help came by way of executive order. The Sewall-Belmont House became one of four initial projects named by Congress in legislation that established the Save America's Treasures (SAT) program and was awarded a $500,000 federal matching grant for exterior restoration. The other original SAT projects were the Star Spangled Banner, the U.S. Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. "Fancy company," says Langelan.
Beginning in 2003, crews re-pointed bricks, repaired the crumbling chimney and deteriorating mortar, replaced rotten wood, and shored-up the sagging second and third floors. The building had its first heating and cooling system installed and its leaky pipes replaced.
"We were able to leverage the original $500,000 SAT grant very effectively," says Langelan. "[We raised an additional] $5 million over the next few years to carry out a massive restoration project, top to bottom, which saved both the site and the irreplaceable artifacts." In fact, more than $200,000 in private contributions were raised for the Sewall-Belmont House by Save America’s Treasures at the National Trust, the program's principal private partner.
Since the restoration project's completion in 2007, the nonprofit received additional grant money to properly preserve hundreds of suffrage banners and thousands of historical photographs, and restore the first feminist library in the country.
"Private donors and foundations don't want to pay for bricks-and-mortar projects," says Jennifer Krafchik, the NWP director of collections. "But you can't do the educational programs and collection preservation if you don't start with bricks and mortar. SAT put us on the map."
In the ten years since SAT was established, Sewall-Belmont is only one of 1,100 success stories. Since its inception, nearly $294 million in federal challenge grants have been awarded to historically significant sites, structures and collections in every state and U.S. territory. However, last month the SAT program was cut from the proposed 2011 federal budget, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation is "dismayed."
"[SAT was] created because there was an obvious need for some kind of intervention at the national level for our most treasured historic sites and collections," says Bobbie Greene McCarthy, director of the National Trust's SAT office. "I watched the [Sewall-Belmont] house go from a hard-hat area to a beautifully restored period home, a dynamic educational center and important community resource. … This program also has put millions of dollars into our National Parks system, and cutting it doesn’t speak to the core mission of cultural management and park oversight."
Langelan says the grant from SAT was the difference between saving the building or selling it. "And if we were to sell it, it would have been demolished," she says. "And you can't tell the story of America without telling the story of American suffragists."
As the city's oldest house outside of the Georgetown neighborhood, the Sewall-Belmont House can claim a distinguished history. Constructed on a corner of Constitution Avenue in 1799 by Maryland plantation owner Robert Sewall, it became the only private residence deliberately burned by the British in the War of 1812. Sewall rebuilt the house in 1820, renting his Federal-style, three-story home to prominent political figures. Vermont Senator Porter Dale purchased the home from Sewall in 1920, and the senator and his wife made several improvements to the spacious and well-lit interiors.
The National Woman's Party did not move into the ivy-covered mansion until 1929, nine years after women gained the right to vote. Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, using money from her divorce settlement from William K. Vanderbilt, purchased and donated the building to the NWP. It became their fourth headquarters, and the party has owned it ever since.
"[When I was president] I always felt [NWP founder] Alice Paul standing beside me, looking over my shoulder. Walking on those floor boards still gives me a chill," Langelan says. "And, with our restoration project, having help with technical expertise in historic preservation was just as important as getting grant money to carry things out. The people at SAT had both."
"[Without SAT] we wouldn't have been able to hire a professional staff, or expand the amount of visitors we could bring into the site," says Krafchik.
What happens to the Save America's Treasures program beyond 2010 remains unknown; but Sewall-Belmont remains open as a museum and gift shop, offering tours throughout the week and on weekends.
"Educating young children in history is something that shouldn't be thrown under the bus simply because there are other issues going on [with the economy]," Krafchik says.
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