Roaming around Rockwood, part two

Thirty-five years ago, on May 22, 1978, GSUSA announced it would sell the Rockwood Girl Scout National Center to developer Berger-Berman for $4.1 million.  The developer planned to build 180 luxury homes on the site.

At the time,  membership had fallen from 3 million to 2 million nationally, and the movement faced a $300,000 annual budget shortfall. Ultimately, the national board decided that one of the four national centers must be sacrificed. Rockwood was chosen because it duplicated many services provided by the Edith Macy National Center in New York state. “We had these two centers serving the same area and needs and we were incurring a six-figure loss on our properties,” said GSUSA spokesman Richard Knox. “The difference between them is substantial. Rockwood has 92 acres and is in the midst of suburban development. Macy has some 270 acres with 114 adjacent acres being leased to the New York Girl Scout Council for a camp.  We could not maintain both.”

Local Girl Scouts disagreed.    Loudly.    Very loudly.

They argued that the sale violated the provisions of Carolyn Caughey’s will, which stipulated that should the Girl Scouts “abandon” the property or cease to use it for a “character building” purpose, it would revert to the Esther Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star. (GSUSA paid the Esther Chapter $150,000 for its rights to the property.)

They also argued that the sale violated the Girl Scout Law’s commitment to “protect and improve the world around me” and “to use resources wisely.”

They further argued that Rockwood and Macy were not interchangeable, as “It is difficult to show girls the people and buildings of the Nation’s Capital while encamped in New York.”

But above all, they argued that the decision to sell should not have been made without consulting individual Girl Scouts.

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Rockwood fans banded together as the “Rescue Rockwood Committee” to save the camp. (The name later changed to “Friends of Rockwood, Inc.”)

In October 1978, GSUSA President Gloria Scott and CEO Frances Hesselbein met with concerned local citizens at a forum in Bethesda, Maryland. A few weeks later, delegates to the National Council Session voted 907-736 to ask GSUSA to “cease negotiations and reconsider the sale of the Rockwood property.”  GSUSA continued with plans for the sale.

Nine Nation’s Capital Girl Scouts filed a class-action lawsuit against GSUSA  in Montgomery County, Maryland, court in January 1979 to block the sale. The Rockwood nine included seven adults (Anne Pomykala, Jean Moore, Jo Reynolds, Wilma Jean Crompton, Patricia Cornish, Charlotte Myklebust, and Dorothy Heisey) and two girls (Kendra Moore and Christina Cornish). Maryland State Attorney General Stephen Sachs soon joined the suit on behalf of the nine Scouts.  The local council, Nation’s Capital, was not part of the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the developer applied to the Montgomery County Council for sewer and water service for the camp. The Council deferred a decision until the lawsuit was resolved.

As legal fees mounted (over $25,000), Committee members raised funds through garage sales, letter-writing campaigns, bake sales, and selling patches and other items.  Marian Corbin Aslakson, a member of Juliette Gordon Low’s original Savannah troop who had moved to Bethesda, Maryland, donated a pair of antique leaded glass windows and a dozen sterling silver goblets to be auctioned off.  Actress Elizabeth Taylor, then married to Virginia Senator John Warner, donated a framed, autographed photo to be auctioned.

In May 1979, the Rescue Rockwood group marched in front of the White House to attract the attention of First Lady Rosalyn Carter, Honorary GSUSA President.

As the trial date approach, Helen Zelov (see part one) planned to travel to Maryland to testify.

Instead, an out-of-court settlement was reached in 1981, whereby 20 acres and most of the buildings went to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the rest to Berger-Berman Builders.  Before the deal was final, the Montgomery County Council needed to approve the developer’s request to rezone the land for residential use.  The park commission and local Girl Scouts also had to work out arrangements that would allow both Girl Scouts and the public to use the facilities.

Today, Rockwood is a popular venue for weddings and other events.  Girl Scouts can camp overnight in the dormitories, but there are no cooking facilities available to them.  Next door is Woodrock, the neighborhood of homes built on former Girl Scout land.

Roaming around Rockwood, part one

The Manor House.
The Manor House.

As I wrap up the manuscript for my book on the history of Girl Scouting in the Washington, DC, region, I realized that I did not have a good photo of the exterior of the Rockwood Estate.  So one recent Sunday my husband, daughter, and I headed down MacArthur Boulevard with our camera. Erin had camped there once as a Brownie, but that was eight years ago.

Rockwood is located at 11001 MacArthur Boulevard in Potomac, Maryland, about 15 miles northwest of the U.S. Capitol. The 93-acre property was bequeathed to the Girl Scouts by socialite Carolyn G. Caughey in 1936. Caughey’s gift was inspired by the bravery of Helen Hopkins Zelov, a Girl Scout leader whose strong voice and calm reaction had guided rescuers to save 11 victims when Washington’s Knickerbocker Theatre collapsed under a heavy snowfall on January 28, 1922. Seriously injured herself, Zelov was presented with a medal for her bravery.

Manor House from the side.
Manor House from the side.

I did not know about the Knickerbocker Theatre link until I began researching Rockwood. Washingtonians know of the tragedy, as it still is used as the benchmark for measuring snowstorms in the area.

Helen Zelov, with her mother and son.
Helen Zelov, with her mother and son.

I got in contact with meteorologist Kevin Ambrose, who has just published a history of the Knickerbocker snowstorm. Kevin graciously sent me this photo he’d found of Helen, the heroic Girl Scout leader. He also mentioned that he was working on a second project, gathering stories from the survivors.

A few weeks later, I discovered that Helen had been interviewed by two members of the GSCNC History and Archives Committee in 1981, one year before her death. The transcript tells of the chaos that night in the theatre, and it reveals that Helen had had spat with her fiance (Mr. Zelov) that day and had actually gone to the show that night with a male friend…who was killed in the roof collapse. Helen and her fiance made up and married a few months later.

Erin is not impressed by my Rockwood knowledge.
Erin is not impressed by my Rockwood knowledge.

Helen’s interview also contains some other interesting details. I knew she was part of the famous Troop 8, formally led by Lou Henry Hoover. But I didn’t know that the daughters of Amos Fries were in Helen’s troop. He is the man who arranged for Camp Bradley, the resident camp at Edgewater (Aberdeen) Arsenal used by Washington and Baltimore Girl Scouts in the 1920s. Those are Camp Bradley Girls in the blog header!