Letter to the Editor: National Trust Should Focus on Historic Preservation
Co-founder of local grassroots organization invites the National Trust to listen to the community and find a solution.
After such a long silence before the public and press, many members of the community are glad to finally see the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s explanation of their support for the bypass option in their letter that was printed in the Mount Vernon Patch on June 19. Fellow preservationists, consulting parties and the community have been puzzled by their unusual position to support the construction of an elevated, six-lane highway that would divide and destroy Woodlawn’s historic property.
However, the letter by the National Trust leaves us more deeply concerned about how the Trust envisions their stewardship role at Woodlawn. Though the offer to sell the southern 54 acres seems genuine, it is contradicted by legal realities. The deed conveying the property to the National Trust plainly states that the property on both sides of Richmond Highway is “subject to a restrictive covenant against any sale, disposition, or disposal.” Few people know that in 1948 our community almost lost Woodlawn as a national treasure when it was about to be sold to a foreign entity. Quickly, a group of individuals formed the Woodlawn Public Foundation, Inc., with the goal to “Save Woodlawn for The Nation.” The group was successful in forming a petition to stop the sale of the house and with the help from many, but mainly Paul Mellon, (who was an avid equestrian) the land was saved and eventually transferred to the newly formed National Trust for Historic Preservation. Those good people saw fit to purchase the parcels on both sides of Richmond Highway, and worked to ensure that a publicly minded entity would preserve it all and preserve it permanently. They had the foresight to see that the preservation of the fields, meadows, and stables—the viewshed of the Woodlawn Mansion and the southern gateway to Mount Vernon—was as important as the preservation of Woodlawn Mansion itself. It seems that the National Trust and their new leadership are now willing to abandon this original charge.
We have reached out to the Trust on numerous occasions to convey the thoughts of the community, and to show how deeply people care for their land and their history. We have received no response; and neither our group nor the owner of the stables was extended the courtesy of a copy of their letter to Delegate Surovell. If the National Trust believes that the strong public reaction to losing the stables is only out of fear of losing a “public amenity”, then it has misread our intentions completely. It is because the community recognizes, while the Trust does not, that the Bypass proposal is the most destructive option for the entire Woodlawn District. It is, as C. Richard Bierce, former NTHP Vice President of Historic Properties states in his comments to the FHWA, “the most devastating threat to the fundamental integrity, defining character and historical presence of the property since the hurricane that nearly destroyed them in 1896.”
We are proud and deeply connected to Woodlawn not only because we have been so privileged to be in the presence of its history, but because we are a part of its history. The National Trust repeatedly states Woodlawn's uniqueness is due to all the eras represented throughout its' property and historic buildings: George Washington and the Mansion; the Quakers and their “free labor colony”; the Civil War-era Otis Mason House and the property he gave the Baptist Church; the century old Sharpe Barn Complex that is home to Woodlawn Stables. But it seems the National Trust doesn’t believe in preserving Woodlawn's most recent era of history, or else it believes it could be sacrificed for the ‘greater good’ of the rest of their property. It is the Animal Farm version of historic preservation. All histories are equal, but some are more equal than others.
As the nation’s leading preservation organization, the National Trust should be showing affirmative leadership on this issue. They could be spearheading the demand for real solutions rather than responding to “divide and conquer” strategies and just declaring widening-in-place as unacceptable. Fortunately, there are those truly interested in finding the best solution to preserve all of Woodlawn and the Historic District. We would invite the National Trust to join with all the preservation interests and the community to find a solution to this problem.
Save Woodlawn Stables
(Editor's Note: Shelley Castle is a co-founder of Save Woodlawn Stables, a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving Woodlawn Stables and the surrounding historic properties.)