Glimpses of the History of Preservation: Resource Management Records and Louise du Pont Crowninshield at Salem Maritime National Historic Site

NMSC recently completed processing resource management records from Salem Maritime National Historic Site (SAMA).  Here, NMSC archivist Margaret Welch discusses how these records reveal one woman’s efforts toward SAMA’s early preservation and interpretation.

NMSC recently completed cataloging the early resource management records of Salem Maritime National Historic Site (SAMA).  SAMA keeps these records to determine how best to preserve and maintain the park’s cultural and natural resources in the present and for the future based on their past management.  In addition to these internal uses by NPS employees and contractors, park resource management records may hold evidence of historical events and trends of interest beyond the NPS.

These SAMA records, in documenting the role of Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958) in the development of the site, highlight the abilities and indeed the character of this major figure in historic preservation in America.  Crowninshield was well known to National Park Service officials for her aid in furnishing Wakefield, the reconstruction of George Washington’s birthplace, which the NPS took over in the early 1930s.  The sister of Henry Francis du Pont, who at the time was collecting American furniture and assembling the period rooms in what would become the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, was already appreciated for her own knowledge of antiques and furnishings.  She, approving of the plan for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities to give the Derby House to the Park Service, helped to pay off the building’s mortgage so that it could be donated in 1938.

Crowninshield furnished the interior of the Derby House before its NPS acquisition with furniture and collectibles from Derby family descendants as well as period items loaned from the local museums.  Her ability to locate family heirlooms was based on her knowledge of her husband’s Derby family ancestors; one suspects that she exercised formidable powers of persuasion on the owners to obtain the items.

Interior of Derby House, SAMA>  (Photo courtesy of Salem Maritime National Historic Site.)

Interior of Derby House, SAMA,ca. 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Salem Maritime National Historic Site.)

Evidently for Crowninshield, ownership by the persons living in the house or by their relatives was a key in determining furnishings in a period room.  However, some considered other priorities including adherence to an established date.  In a 28 May 1939 letter to the Superintendent of SAMA — refreshing in its candor amidst bureaucratic correspondence – William Sumner Appleton, founder of SPNEA and another historic preservation leader, confided:

Mr. Hipkiss [Edwin J. Hipkiss, curator at Boston Museum of Fine Arts] is of the opinion that you are very fortunate to have the assistance of Mrs. Crowninshield [for furnishing the Derby House] but we both feel that the things she has sent down are, in greater part, too old for the house.  That is just between you and me and I wouldn’t tell her that comes from me.  When I see her next, I shall take occasion to tell her so and may perhaps drop her a letter in which I shall raise the point in a friendly way (Resource Management Records, BX 2, Fldr 5.)

As she persuaded others, Crowninshield herself was to be persuaded; unspoken is the issue that, because she volunteered her services and donated money, coldly pointing out factual errors was not an option.

Her brother Henry’s attention to detail is legendary, but Crowninshield also saw the “small stuff.”  After one October 1943 visit, she wrote the following complaint to the NPS Director about failing paint on the Derby House fence:

The outside paint which Mr. Small [SAMA Superintendent] had put on the fence and gates must have been very poor because it is all chipped off … It seems funny that the Government should have furnished poor quality paint.

(Wartime exigencies seemed not a problem to her.)  The regional director asked the SAMA superintendent to fix the issue, noting that “Mrs. Crowninshield was deeply interested in promoting the welfare of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site” (RMR Box 7, Fldr 19).

Fellow historic preservationists visited the new site, the first national historic site in the NPS system, drawn in part by Crowninshield’s participation.  According to the visitor book, on 6 September 1935, the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator and furniture expert Joseph Downs came.  Bertram Little and Nina Fletcher Little, the noted antiques collectors and scholars, visited several times.  Rodney Sharp, who restored historic houses in Odessa, Delaware, came in August 1942.  Will S. Taylor from the Brown University Department of Art wished to bring his American architecture students to visit the restoration work in April 1939.

Visitors on tour in the Derby House, SAMA, ca. 1950s.  (Photo courtesy of Salem Maritime National Historic Site.)

Visitors on tour in the Derby House, SAMA, ca. 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Salem Maritime National Historic Site.)

Louisa Crowninshield went on to participate in other ventures including the National Trust for Historical Preservation, but she remained constant to SAMA throughout the years.  NPS officials were careful to consult her before the formation of the Salem Maritime Historical Association, and she became the Association’s first president.  She served in that capacity until her death.

 

For additional reading:

Seth C. Bruggeman, Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument.  Athens: University of Ga. Press, 2008.  Available as Google eBook.  Discussion of Crowninshield’s role in the establishment of George Washington Birthplace National Monument.

Kim Burdick, “Remembering Louise Crowninshield,” from Forum Journal (Spring 2000), Vol. 14, No. 3 available at http://www.preservationnation.org/forum/library/public-articles/remembering-louise-crowninshield.html

Edwin W. Small, “The Derby House,” Old-Time New England.  Available at http://www.historicnewengland.org/preservation/your-older-or-historic-home/articles/pdf374.pdf

SAMA’s first superintendent acknowledges Crowinshield’s help in acquiring objects from Derby Family members, p. 106.

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