Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
The sites that get the most public votes will win a total of $2 million from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express.
In 1902, Justina Ford became the first licensed African-American female doctor in Colorado. Then came the hard part: Getting a hospital to let her practice medicine.
As a black woman, Ford had to fight “like a tiger” against racial and gender discrimination, she recalled later in life. Like other black doctors, she was barred from operating out of Denver’s traditional medical facilities, so she started paying house calls to her patients. But eventually, she also asked them to come to her, inviting expecting mothers to a first-floor office in the home she bought with her husband in 1912. Over the course of her 50-year career, Ford helped deliver more than 7,000 babies. And many of the births happened right in that house—a brick, Italianate-style 1890 building in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.
In the years after Ford’s death in 1952, the community suffered from disinvestment and population loss, and in 1984, a private developer threatened to raze the house along with others on the block to make room for a parking lot. Locals rallied together to save the house from destruction, agreeing to tow it to another location in the city, where it now serves as the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center. But years of weathering have taken their toll. Now, the museum is vying for the chance to keep Ford’s home alive.
For the past 13 years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express have held a competition called Partners in Preservation to fund the rehabilitation of historic buildings. To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020, this year they have chosen to focus on preserving places whose history is tied up with important women, and whose potential to inspire others is threatened by decay.
Twenty sites across the United States have been selected to participate in the 2019 competition for a piece of a $2 million grant. (Each site has already been given $10,000 to fund awareness-raising events.) From September 24 until October 29, you can vote on which ones should win.
“[T]he site with the most votes will be awarded a full grant based on their needs. Moving down the winner list, sites will continue to receive full funding, based on their needs, until all the funding has been spent,” a spokesperson for the competition told CityLab in an email.
Some of the eligible buildings, like Ford’s home, were places of work and everyday life for ambitious, trailblazing women. There’s the former home of Ruth Hartley Mosley, who was one of the first women morticians, a decorated nurse, and an active leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Her estate in Macon, Georgia, is now the Ruth Hartley Mosley Memorial Women’s Center. There’s also the Elisabet Ney Museum, a limestone fortress built in Austin, Texas, by the German-American sculptor in 1892.
Or there’s the Union Block building in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where in 1869 Belle Babb Mansfield took and passed the bar exam—a test technically restricted to “any white male person” at the time. Mansfield then successfully challenged Iowa to amend its rule excluding women from the bar, which led to the state becoming the first in the country to allow women to practice law. Though she didn’t ever practice herself, Mansfield became the first licensed female lawyer in the U.S. She went on to serve as the temporary chair of the first Iowa Women’s Rights Convention.
Or, in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, there’s the structurally precarious 1903 courthouse with the courtroom featured in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, where Lee’s father (the real-life model for Atticus Finch) defended the kind of clients who inspired Boo Radley.
For many of these women, having a room of one’s own, so to speak, was significant, given that they were shut out of—or forced into the background of—many public spaces. Remembering the stories of the women is one aim of the competition, but the other goal is to ensure their physical legacy remains.
Some of the sites on the list have taken on community roles transcending their historical associations. Among them is the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles. Founded by Jill Halverson, an outreach worker who struck up a friendship with a homeless woman named Ruth, in 1978, the women’s center is, by its own account, “the only organization in Los Angeles focused exclusively on serving and empowering women experiencing homelessness and formerly homeless women,” and the first permanent supportive-housing provider for women in the entire country. Located in the heart of L.A.’s Skid Row—and to this day, the only health clinic that serves Skid Row women specifically—the center says the structure, which was built in 1927 by a female developer, needs new signage and facade improvements.
Other sites are hoping to use the funds to make their facilities more accessible. In Salt Lake City, the Ladies’ Literary Club was established in 1877 and started hosting salons, advocating for a free public library in the city, and staging drama productions. In 1913, the group got its own clubhouse, designed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School style. If it wins the grant money, the present-day LLC wants to build a wheelchair ramp to make what was once known as “the house that the women built” open to all.
Less than 10 percent of the sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places are associated with women and racial minorities. Yet women have been at the forefront of the preservation movement since its beginnings. Devoting more resources to keeping these sites in good repair is a step toward correcting the record.