LIKE ANY great historical figure, Juliette Gordon Low’s legacy can mean different things to different people.
To some, she is a revered local icon, the famous daughter of a storied Savannah family with roots that date back to the American Revolution. To others, she represents a voice of inclusivity and equality in our country’s narrative long before women achieved the right to vote.
To the legions of Girl Scouts across the world, she is the founding visionary of an organization that has inspired and educated young girls for over a century.
These are all reasons to make the pilgrimage to 10 E. Oglethorpe Avenue, the site of the 19th-century Federal-style mansion where the social change champion known as “Daisy” was born. Like Daisy herself, the house holds several meanings—and that’s created heated contention as of late.
The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, referred to simply as “The Birthplace,” welcomes almost 100,000 visitors a year, most of them troops and their leaders paying homage at the site they call “Girl Scout Mecca.” Many others stop in as part of a Savannah sightseeing itinerary focused on architecture and history.
Since 1953, the home has been owned and under the stewardship of the Girl Scouts of the USA, which has overseen several award-winning renovations, including the exterior restoration completed in 2014. The center of the current controversy is the recently established exhibit in what was the Gordon family’s library on the main floor.
Last April, GSUSA replaced the paint, furniture and art of the traditional setting with an interactive installation that has Daisy’s descendants steamed. Designed by GSUSA Chief Cultural Resources Executive and former National Trust for Historic Preservation staffer Cindi Malinick, “Girls Writing the World: A Library Reimagined” features books by and about other historical and contemporary female figures and incorporates modern items like iPads and track lighting.
The intention behind the exhibit is “to connect Juliette Gordon Low with other strong, courageous women who have created change in the world,” explains Lisa Junkin Lopez, who came on as executive director of the Birthplace in November.
“The goal is for girls to see themselves reflected in that.”
Born in 1860, Daisy Gordon grew up wealthy and educated during the Civil War and the tumultuous times afterwards. When she founded the Girl Scouts in 1912 at the age of 51, her insistence on including those on Savannah’s social fringe—Irish, Jewish, African American, disabled—was considered a highly radical notion.
As the last stop on the house tour, the new library is meant to bridge the rest of the finely-appointed rooms of her childhood home—which remain largely untouched by time—with her commitment to girls of all races, religions, abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds.
That’s a fine idea, says Daisy’s great nephew McGuire “Mac” Gordon, but it should not have been implemented by dissolution of the original library.
“We aren’t opposed to the iPad interactivity. But they could have put it in the carriage house. They could have put it in the basement, which has already been modified,” says Gordon, spokesperson for Defend the Birthplace, an organization seeking to compel the Girl Scouts of America to return the library to its former state.
“People come to see a historical site. They don’t come to play with iPads. Why would you spoil the experience?”
Last month the group launched a petition on Change.org asking for support in restoring the room it says helped inspire Daisy to become such an important and influential leader. Defend the Birthplace contends that the “reimagined library” does little to provide context about her life and the Girl Scouts, and that “this perhaps well-meaning attempt at engaging today’s girls threatens to erase the fascinating history of this great American and the Movement she founded.”
The petition has garnered almost 1800 signatures and will be delivered to GSUSA officials, including interim CEO Sylvia Acevedo, who replaced Anna Maria Chávez in June. While the family has no legal claim on how GSUSA uses the property, the group believes its efforts will have an impact.
“As family of the founder, I think we can cause enough of a ruckus to make them wish they hadn’t done it,” says Gordon.
“Our best and most potent weapon is PR. I guess if the Girl Scouts can weather a lot of bad publicity, then I guess they will.”
He says the group is still awaiting the results of a six-month assessment conducted by the Birthplace to gauge public reaction to the new library.
GSUSA has not responded directly to the strife but released a statement regarding the assessment: “Based on the data collected, the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace engages visitors, making an impact on Girl Scouts and other visitors. In particular, many Girl Scouts find deep personal meaning in their visit. The new Library installation is a critical component of that inspiration and meaning-making process, helping girls and others connect past to present.”
The conflict is the first negative mark on what has always been an amicable relationship between the Girl Scouts and the descendants of the Gordon family.
“For 60 years I’d say we all got along swimmingly,” says Gordon, who was granted special permission by GSUSA to hold his wedding in his family’s former home.
“In fact, it had only gotten better, in terms of preservation. We don’t see that with this new leadership.”
Junkin Lopez maintains that the mission of the Birthplace is the same as it has always been.
“We serve girls and support them in building courage, confidence and character,” she says, echoing the Girl Scouts national motto. “We work to engage our visitors as we balance access and preservation.”
Like many house museums, the furniture and accoutrements at the Birthplace are a combination of original pieces and items not endemic to the house but of the same period as well as well-constructed props, the latter of which visitors are allowed to handle or sit.
Junkin Lopez says that the furniture and heirlooms donated by Gordon family descendants from the original library have been placed in storage.
She points out that the library’s original bookcases and fireplace are the dominant features of the new installation, including original copies of the Girl Scouts’ American Girl magazine and antique postcards.
“There are actually more artifacts on display than ever before,” she says, noting a set of paper dolls created by Daisy after reading Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins.
She also acknowledges that a certain amount of change is inevitable, not only for the library but for the garden, which has also raised concerns among staunch Birthplace preservationists.
The formal Victorian garden designed in the 1950s by pioneer landscape architect Claremont Lee—one of the first women in the field—is slated for a revamp in 2017 to address myriad safety, sustainability and accessibility issues.
“Unfortunately, many of the original plants didn’t thrive, and the gravel pathways can’t accommodate wheelchairs,” says Junkin Lopez, adding that the Scout’s Own pinning ceremony is one of the most venerated parts of the tour for visiting Girl Scouts.
“We need a garden where the girls can gather.”
Critics decry such changes as evidence that GSUSA is messing with history and the family’s legacy. Since the transition of the library, the Birthplace is no longer included on the Historic Savannah Foundation’s Triple Pass House Tour with the Davenport House and the Andrew Low House, which belonged to the family of Daisy’s husband. Instead of a room preserved in time, visitors now find the modern world at the end of their tour.
“They’re missing what was in many ways the emotional center of the house,” says Gordon. “I guess I don’t understand how it was a historic museum for 60 years and now it’s not.”
According to records, the Birthplace was never meant to be a museum at all.
In a letter dated April 1955, then-GSUSA national director Dorothy Stratton resolved that the acquisition of the home was not primarily “for its historic interest.”
“Nice as it is to own this house and restore it to its former beauty, it is not to be a period piece unrelated to the life of Girl Scouts,” she wrote, admonishing that in order to be true to Daisy Low’s ideals, “the birthplace must provide opportunities for girls to talk about their dreams, their ambitions, ways of serving their country...The birthplace will be a center of activities.”
It appeared to be fulfilling that edict last week, as a troop from New Jersey entered the high-ceilinged foyer with squeals upon seeing the portrait of their favorite heroine.
There are no velvet ropes around the furniture in the double parlor, where docent Charm Thomas led the girls in games that Daisy would have played in this very spot, including a version of Charades that had them acting out stories from her life. The three-hour tour included more games and discussions designed to give visitors of all ages an intimate glimpse of Daisy Low’s life.
Unbeknownst of any controversy, the girls entered the library quietly, then began to buzz as they realized they were allowed to touch everything. They paged through the books, wrote poems in the journals, constructed their names with Scrabble tiles.
They peered into the iPads playing footage of Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai, then into the antique Stereoscopes Daisy would have used as a girl to examine photos of faraway places, a juxtaposition of the ways girls from two different centuries have a window to the world.
Yet no amount of imaginary roleplay makes it possible to know what Daisy would do. Would she have approved of or been upset by the changes in her family home? Would she see the flashing screens in her father’s beloved library and a wheelchair-accessible garden as evolution or sacrilege? How would she balance her loyalty to her family and her commitment to the organization she created?
In her absence, the varied perspectives of her legacy continue to be at odds.
“This house has been our family for hundreds of years. We’re not going anywhere,” avows Gordon.
Junkin Lopez sympathizes with those who are unhappy with the library and other proposed changes but says that GSUSA will continue with its established mission and future vision for the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace.
“On our tours, we ask the girls, ‘who owns this house?’” she says.
“They are always surprised when we tell them, ‘You do.’ The Girl Scouts.”
Thanks, Lisbet - all fixed.
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