In 1953, Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low’s childhood home (the Birthplace) in Savannah, Ga. was sold to the Girl Scouts of the USA by the Gordon family. It had been in the family since 1821. Over the last 60 plus years, it was lovingly maintained and curated by devoted women and men who rehabilitated and showcased the home as a stunning example of restored grace that afforded a unique look into the early life of the Founder of the Movement. Hundreds of thousands of Girl Scouts, tourists, and GS alumnae have visited the house and experienced the home as it was when Daisy was young. The Birthplace has been a coveted destination for countless Scout troops whose pilgrimage to the house was rewarded with a heartfelt connection to the emotional center of Girl Scouts.
That house, our family’s ancestral home and the incubator for ideas that led to the founding of the Girl Scouts, is now under attack. Not from outside forces, developers, or government agencies, but from within! The GSUSA’s own executives have decided that the house as it was—a gorgeous example of Savannah’s colorful past and the early home of the Founder— was not meeting the needs of “modern” Girl Scouts. They feel the Birthplace needs to be “re-imagined”.
The Birthplace is listed both individually on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), and as part of the Juliette Gordon Low National Historic District, designated as a National Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in June 1965.1 These prestigious listings are intended to document the national and local historical value of the property based on its significance under NRHP criteria “a” (events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history) and “b” (associated with the lives of significant persons). Moreover, “the quality of significance in American history is present in districts and buildings that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association”2. The National Parks Service is responsible by law for monitoring National Historic Landmarks.3
However, without verifiable consultation with or notification of a single historic preservation organization, or the Founder’s family, the GSUSA’s new Chief Cultural Resources Executive undertook a dramatic alteration of the once beautiful library of the Birthplace. Suddenly, the wonderful, warm room that Daisy and her family used as a gathering place, which had been painstakingly restored was dismantled and replaced with stark white walls, panels of art from local college students, old book covers glued to the fireplace mantle and surrounding walls, track lighting, and half a dozen iPads on a table in the center. You may witness the destruction here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Rw4tVgDjGw. The library has become an arcade that now focuses on famous women writers who have little, if anything, to do with Girl Scouts or Daisy. In other parts of the house, furniture has been removed and stored, protective ropes taken away, and some rooms are now designated as open and interactive for visiting Scouts, meaning there are no off limits areas in these rooms. We believe Daisy would be appalled.
These changes compromise the integrity of the very characteristics upon which national recognition as a significant historic landmark was based. If there is no Federal involvement in this project, GSUSA is not legally bound to consult with the Georgia State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) or the national Advisory Council on Historic Preservation before undertaking substantial changes affecting the Birthplace. However, we reasonably expect that doing so would be a high priority for GSUSA management – especially their Chief Cultural Resources Executive – so as not to jeopardize the listing status of the Birthplace as a national historic resource. When the Gordon family sold the house to the Girl Scouts, it was with the expectation that they would be responsible stewards of not only the cultural resource, but the legacy of the Founder. Such disregard for a recognized national treasure is heartbreaking, but not irreversible.
When asked why this modernist approach was undertaken in the library instead of an out building or the already modernized basement, no clear answer could be provided by GSUSA staff. Instead, the new Director of the Birthplace defends the changes as progressive and necessary “to better engage the Girl Scout visitors” and “… to leverage GSUSA cultural assets to grow the Girl Scout Movement.” This has been the typical refrain from GSUSA for the past year. Yet they conducted no consultation that the family has been able to verify as to the effect of the changes on the historic fabric and association of the house, nor did any assessment of the change during the planning stage. An assessment of the library alterations is now complete, nearly a year after the fact. The new Director of the Birthplace presented this data to a Birthplace Community Committee on June 15. The data and methodology are hopelessly slanted to favor the new room. And no evaluation of the adult visitors to the house was considered at all. (Approx. 62,000 people visited last year. Of that, 14,000 were Girl Scouts. Yet, no effort was made to survey the 48,000 adults who paid to see the house.) The Director of the Birthplace contends this evaluation is professional and acceptable. The paid assessment consultant they hired actually went out to the streets near the Birthplace to randomly ask people what they thought of 2 photos—a before and after of the library. That is considered by the same Director part of a deep and professional evaluation. To us, it is unacceptable. Added to that, the surveys of Girl Scouts only led to the stunning fact that children 8-13 like bright colors, iPads, and toys more than old portraits and antique furniture. This is a useless assessment of an historical site, and is better suited for an amusement park.
Please join me, and my entire extended family, to stop this unnecessary destruction of the Birthplace. We, the Founder’s family, ask you, your council members, and alumnae to write to the acting GSUSA CEO Sylvia Acevedo and the National Board of Directors urging that they stop and reverse these historically incompatible modernization efforts at the Birthplace. We ask that you sign our petition on Change.org to present to the interim CEO and Board Chair. (https://www.change.org/p/defend-the-birthplace-a59afe30-7b9…) We are urgently requesting GSUSA to return the library to its previous glory. They need to know that this is not the best path to improving the Girl Scout experience at the house even if program improvements are needed. Without your support, we fear the curiously stubborn refusal by GSUSA to acknowledge their decisions could be flawed will set the tone for the future of the house. History is elusive and if unilateral efforts to “re-imagine” it are carried out by GSUSA leadership, we may never get the original experience back.
Together we can stop this trivialization of Daisy’s legacy and history. We firmly believe that devoted Girl Scouts of all ages across the country will understand how disrespectful and thoughtless these actions have been. We ask all the women and girls of the Scouts to help us send a clear, unequivocal message to the GSUSA executive leadership and the National Board that the “cultural assets” owned by the GSUSA have inherent meaning and value, and this applies in particular to the Birthplace as a recognized national treasure for ALL to enjoy. GSUSA does not need to re-invent Daisy’s history or dilute it with other women’s histories. Lastly, we want GSUSA and the National Board to know that by alienating the Founder’s family and any Girl Scout membership who support us, GSUSA stands alone in their strange defiance of what Daisy believed in and the values she held dear.
THE FOUNDER’S FAMILY SEEKS YOUR HELP TO:
• Restore the library of the house to its previous condition. The GSUSA can’t have it both ways—trumpeting the historic exterior and yet creating modern interiors.
• Assure that future changes to the building and grounds are undertaken with
advanced notification of The National Parks Service and courtesy consultation
during planning with Georgia SHPO.
• Ensure the proposed plans to renovate the side Garden are in keeping with an
historic Savannah property and the landmark status of the site.
• Maintain or restore access to the Birthplace for local Savannah tour companies to help keep entrance fees low (some contracts from tour operators were canceled without warning).
• Start new, innovative programs for Girl Scouts that do not require gadgets or
historically incompatible alteration of rooms in the historic part of the house. We welcome new ideas for engagement, but do NOT believe exhibits installed with utter disregard for historic preservation are needed to celebrate the legacy of one of America’s most famous women, Juliette Gordon Low.
• Reopen all the bedrooms (Mabel’s room is currently closed off), and keep the furniture and relics throughout the house safe from any mishaps.
We plead for your help to stop these callous efforts before they overwhelm the site, and we no longer have the special, nationally recognized Gordon family home that shaped Daisy’s life, but merely the shell of an old house filled with modern, interpretative “installations” that claims to “re-imagine” history for the sake of “engagement.” If we do nothing, we fear that continuation of the recent course of action will rob current and future Girl Scouts of the opportunity to experience Daisy’s world first hand. We firmly believe that “re- imagining” can best be achieved in the creative imaginations of individual Scouts; we think that’s what Daisy believed, too.
Thank you for your time and consideration. Please visit our Facebook page, and do not hesitate to contact us with questions or concerns.
The Founder’s Family
McGuire Gordon, Family Spokesperson
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