Yesterday the oldest synagogue in Washington, DC, was seen rolling through the streets of the Nation’s Capital.
This wasn’t cheap entertainment provided during the federal government furlough–well, actually it WAS free and entertaining. The journey was a major step in the development of a new Capital Jewish Museum. A decent-sized crowd gathered to watch the wheeled building migrate down 3rd Street NW.
In fact, this was the third relocation for the peripatetic synagogue.
This latest motorized procession reminds me of a similar excursion made by the Girl Scout Little House in 1924. But that move was accomplished with actual horsepower, not heavy equipment.
Built behind the White House in Washington, DC, for the second Better Homes Demonstration Week in June 1923, the Little House was a fully working home, with a modern kitchen, breakfast nook, three bedrooms, and a nursery. Between June 4 and June 10, 2,500–3,500 people visited the house each day. After the exhibition, the Better Homes in America and General Federation of Women’s Clubs offered it to the Girl Scouts for use as a national training and innovation center.
The Girl Scouts were reluctant to accept. While it would wonderfully fit in with the Girl Scout program, accepting the gift would require a considerable investment. There were no funds for utilities, staff, insurance, and other operating costs. Most important, there were no funds available to relocate the building.
The clock began ticking on the fate of the model home. The exhibit permit expired on June 15.
Lou Henry Hoover immediately saw the value in accepting the house and began working to persuade the Girl Scouts to accept. As national president of the organization, she began a barrage of letters and telegrams to national board members that lasted all summer. On September 20, the national board voted to decline the proposed gift.
But Hoover refused to let the issue drop. She even offered to personally pay any deficit that might accrue in the first two years of operation.
Hoover offered several new arguments to try and sway the reluctant board members.
First, the house had historical significance as it was the last building dedicated by President Warren G. Harding before his sudden death on August 2.
Second, operating programs from the Little House would silence other groups who accused the Girl Scouts of being more interested in hiking than homemaking:
Considering the opposition we have had to meet in many quarters, particularly with the Camp Fire Girls and the Boy Scouts on this very matter of our home making propensities,—or the lack of them,—I feel that we must accept this, our justification, if possible.
–Lou Henry Hoover
Third, some costs could be mitigated by renting out a room or two to the local council for its offices.
Meanwhile, the Parks Service was continually pleading for someone to get the house off of government property.
Ultimately, Mrs. Hoover grew tired of the back-and-forth and took matters into her own hands. She contacted Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, of the Phillips Art Collection, who agreed to loan a plot of land that they owned at 1750 New York Ave. NW. The new home for the Little House would be two blocks southwest of the White House and across the street from the famous Octagon House.
Hoover wanted her financial contribution to be anonymous, so she arranged for Henrietta Bates Brooke to sign the moving contract, as member of the National Executive Board. Edward G. McGill of Cumberland, Maryland, oversaw a crew of men who hoisted the house onto rails and pulled it to the new site. McGill charged $3,000 for transporting the house. Hoover also paid for a basement, utility connections, and landscaping, for a total cost of $12,000.
Much to the relief of Colonel Sherrill, the Little House arrived at its new home in March 1924—nine months after the original exhibition. First Lady Grace Coolidge helped re-dedicate the building in a ceremony on March 25, as a beaming Mrs. Hoover watched. Dressed in a broad-brimmed hat, long dress, fox-trimmed cloak, and dark leather gloves, Mrs. Coolidge gamely picked up a mason’s trowel and slathered on a layer of cement to seal the cornerstone placed under the breakfast nook. Inside the stone was a handbook, several other Girl Scout publications, and that day’s newspaper.
Lou would have pulled it herself
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Little House was THE place to go on Saturdays. There was always some badge activity to try or new skill to learn, and the First Lady, as honorary president of the Girl Scouts, might decide to drop by. After all, the White House was just around the corner.
It became the first of many “Little Houses” across the country, where Girl Scouts practiced their homemaking and hospitality skills.
The Girl Scouts of the District of Columbia rented a room in the northwest corner of the second floor as its headquarters until it outgrew the facility in 1928. The Little House was used continuously for trainings and demonstrations of the domestic arts from June 1923 to April 1945. The building was used as a branch of Girl Scouts of the USA, the national organization, for the next decade then given to the landowners in May 1955. The Little House was torn down in the early 1970s.
There is a commemorative plaque in the lobby of the office building that currently sits at the site.
For more about the original Little House, see the pamphlet, “Girl Scouts Keep House in Washington.”
©2019 Ann Robertson