The Volunteer Legacy at the Birthplace

This week a new Birthplace Advisory Committee convenes in Savannah to consider renovations and other changes for the coming decade.

The Girl Scouts of the USA purchased the childhood home of founder Juliette Gordon Low in 1953. I’ve previously written about the fund drive to raise money for the purchase and subsequent renovation.

I have always been curious about the Birthplace and how it compares to other national properties, specifically the Little House, (acquired in 1922), and Rockwood National Camp (1936).

Both the Little House and Rockwood were generous, but unanticipated, gifts reluctantly accepted by the national Girl Scout headquarters (GSUSA). National’s reticence related to the costs associated with these surprise bequests.

Imagine that I give all readers a new car. (Emphasis on imagine.) The prize sounds like a windfall at first, but your excitement dims when you realize that you must suddenly come up with cash to pay taxes on the gift, registration fees, insurance, and even gasoline.

After accepting Rockwood, GSUSA vowed to never again accept such a gift without an accompanying endowment.

Indeed, when the Girl Scouts had the opportunity to purchase the Andrew Low House in 1943, Daisy’s marital home in Savannah, they declined for this very reason—the total cost would be much higher than just the purchase price.

Nine years later, the Savannah Council called again. An historic property was about to come on the market. The council could not afford it, so representatives contacted the national headquarters. This time the property in question was a Regency mansion on the corner of Bull and Oglethorpe Streets; the Gordon family home and Daisy’s birthplace.

Dedication of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, GSUSA photo

Both the house and the neighborhood had deteriorated over time, and some Gordon descendants wanted to raze the house and sell the land. Savannah’s commercial district was expanding, and the Gordon corner lot would be attractive to business developers.

Daisy’s niece Eleanor Wayne Macpherson was appalled at the idea of tearing down the house. It held wonderful memories from her childhood. Losing it, she lamented, “would be a tragedy, because, over and above its historic value, it is associated with everything I hold dear.”

Macpherson launched a three-pronged strategy to save the Gordon house.

Persuading the Family

The house was owned and managed by an informal trust set up among Daisy and her siblings. The six children had received equal ownership shares upon the death of their parents. These shares were subsequently further divided and sold or swapped among descendants.

Macpherson knew that the trustee, her nephew, favored demolition, so she began quietly acquiring house shares from distant relatives so that she would gain a majority and be able to block moves toward demolition.

GSUSA: “No Thanks”

Macpherson approached national Executive Director Dorothy Stratton about purchasing the home. The reply was a swift “No.”

Anne Hyde Choate

Macpherson was not completely surprised by this refusal. In fact, she had already contacted Anne Hyde Choate about the situation. Choate, Daisy’s goddaughter who had succeeded Low as national president in 1920, agreed on the need to preserve the house.

Choate advised Macpherson to not condemn national leaders for their veto, as “One cannot blame those overburdened people for wanting to avoid more responsibility.”

Rally the Troops

Choate encouraged Macpherson to persevere. Specifically, it was time to rally the membership behind this cause.

Somehow we must get into our Nat. Hdqrs’ mind the idea that one of their chief functions is to encourage local or other Girl Scout groups to take responsibility and carry out their own good ideas, — in fact, to treat their experienced members as grownup people!

–Anne Hyde Choate

She encouraged Macpherson to contact Louise Dawe, an influential Girl Scout in Richmond, Virginia, and the women began assembling an informal panel of volunteers to save the Birthplace.

The Board Bends

When the national Board of Directors met in October 1952, Choate formally proposed creating a committee to study the implications of purchasing the Gordon home. Board members agreed they should not to dismiss the issue outright. The motion passed, and an “Ad Hoc Committee to Consider Purchase of the Birthplace” was created from Choate’s list of proposed committee members. She reported to Dawe that the motion had passed “definitely against” the advice and wishes of top GSUSA officials.

Committees Begin

The Ad Hoc Committee visited Savannah in February to inspect the Birthplace and offered their preliminary impressions to the Board in March. At that point, the Board expanded the committee, creating subcommittees to focus on finance as well as restoration, operations, maintenance, and program. The latter subcommittee was to include representatives from Savannah.

The national Board also instructed headquarters to pay $500 for an option to purchase the house for $65,000. This would prevent the building from being razed or sold to another buyer until after the October Board meeting, when the Dawe report would be presented.

The Committee worked at a frantic pace throughout the summer of 1953 to assess the financial implications of purchasing and restoring the Gordon home. They looked at a range of expenses and consider what programming could be offered at the house.

Not Just Another Expense

Volunteers spent the summer trying to convert key leaders to their cause.

National President Olivia Layton sent Dawe a list of other properties that had recently been offered to and refused by GSUSA, trying to establish that a precedent existed for such matters. Dawe, for her part, insisted that none of these cases were relevant because “none of them belonged to the Girl Scout history nor offered a reason for the girls’ participation in the project.” Furthermore, she cited bankers and real estate experts who believed the property would be “not alone a sentimental or emotional [purchase] … [but] a very good investment.”

Dawe went on to compare the Girl Scouts to the United Nations as both sought “to build the defenses of peace in the minds and hearts of children.” Just as the UN complex has a small chapel dedicated to the founder, she thought the Gordon house could provide a similar focal point for Girl Scouts. “It might offer that sense of the beginning of an idea and the continuity of its great purpose.” Office locations might change, but the house would remain a fixed anchor.

Layton took note of Dawe’s lofty ideals, but plainly stated that finding a new national headquarters building and developing Camp Macy should take precedence over buying an old home in Savannah. Dawe acknowledged these priorities, but

“With the house, it is now or never. … Is that also true of headquarters, and of Macy?”

–Louise Dawe

Mission Accomplished

The Committee’s findings were assembled into an extensive report, which Dawe presented at the October meeting of the national Board of Directors. In a nail-biting vote, the board approved the purchase, 32–24.

The Ad Hoc Committee to Consider the Purchase was dissolved and a new “Special Committee on the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace” created. This new group included members of the initial committee, as well as individuals representing Savannah, and Girl Scout Region VI, among others.

Macpherson was also a part of this original committee. Although I have seen no provision requiring a Gordon family member to be on such an advisory group, typically someone has. That is true for the latest incarnation, as well.

As the Birthplace continues to evolve, let us remember that volunteers can have a lasting impact on key decisions determining the direction of our movement.

©2019 Ann Robertson

4 thoughts on “The Volunteer Legacy at the Birthplace

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this story and the many others you bring to the Girl Scout family. I appreciate your research and reporting on behalf of the Girl Scout movement.
    Pat

    Patricia Broughton, CFRE
    Vice President, Philanthropic Innovation
    Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana
    20 S. Clark St., #200
    Chicago, IL 60603
    312-912-6342 (w)
    847-894-9272 (m)
    http://www.girlscoutsgcnwi.org

    Create your legacy. Invest in girls. Change the world with a planned gift to Girl Scouts. Find out more here.

  2. This is a great story revealing the power of volunteers committed to doing something that is RIGHT! Thank goodness the Birthplace has been preserved for generations of Girl Scouts to visit and continue to learn from! Thank you for sharing this important story.

  3. So glad they persevered! We need to be as diligent as they were. So much appreciate your perspective on relevant Girl Scout topics, Ann! What a travesty it would have been to let it slip through our fingers!

  4. Hello Ann,
    ‘Wonderful article! Eleanor Wayne Parker Macpherson was my grandmother, (my Mother’s Mother.) I remember hearing our family talk about her efforts to save the birthplace. Aunt Daisy and the house were very special to Grandmere and she was a very intelligent, artistic, complicated but driven individual. Her friendship with Anne Hyde Choate (a classmate from St Timothy’s) was helpful and encouraged her to keep up her persistence to save such an historical home.

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