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Expendable History? Saving Women’s Historic Sites from Demolition

by Megan Byrnes, Independent Museum Educator, Committee member of the Women's History Affinity Group on

As a women’s historian, I have always subscribed to the belief that women’s histories, stories, and contributions are everywhere; we just need to look for them. Imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that I was not only living close to the historic home of a significant woman, but that said home was slated to be demolished to make way for apartments and single family houses? As a relatively recent transplant to Bentonville, Arkansas, I was unaware that the town was home to Louise Thaden, pioneering female pilot and contemporary of Amelia Earhart, who set records for speed, altitude, and solo endurance in the 1920s and 1930s, and who is featured at the Smithsonian Institution. Many other Bentonville residents were also either unaware of the house’s history or under the misconception that it was protected as a historic site. The threat to Thaden’s childhood home got me thinking about how to identify, record, and preserve sites connected with women’s history, as well as other local histories, and how to proactively work with other community members to make the case that these sites were valuable and worthy of protection.

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American aviation pioneer Louise Thaden (1905-1979). Wikipedia Commons.

The first thing that the Thaden case taught me was that a site’s designation as part of an historic district or even listing on the National Register was not enough to protect it from demolition.[1] While there are benefits to undergoing the process of designation, such as having historians come out to a site to research and document it, as well as buildings becoming eligible for certain grants and state and federal tax credits for preservation, private property owners can opt out of historic districts at any time, alter the site, or even “dispose” of the property if they so choose Such was the case with the Thaden house; even though the house was a member of the West Central Avenue Historic District, in a time of rapid town growth, the land that the house is on was considered to be more valuable than the house itself by its present owners. So, what avenues are left to concerned townspeople who want to preserve a specific historic site and discover other local places that may be worthy of protection?

Get to know your local historic society and its records. Learn more about your town’s history by studying historic photographs, property and genealogical records, newspapers, and other local publications, and by talking with local historical experts. Go to your library and find out if there are any local organizations like genealogy or architecture clubs, or other historic sites, museums, or schools that might be interested in spearheading a local history research and documentation project.

Next, get to know like-minded residents and your town board. In the case of the Thaden House, word-of-mouth among historic homeowners, local press coverage, and the use of social media tools like Facebook to organize site protests and online petitions helped to notify and build a grassroots coalition of local history stakeholders who went to the town board. Learn more about your local zoning laws and become a presence at town board and planning meetings to demonstrate that historic preservation is a priority. Offer to assist the board in researching historic preservation options, such as developing a local historical commission to manage historic sites. While local and state laws and organizations play an important role in preserving historic sites, remember that there is a limit to what they can do without certain laws in place and the consent of a private property owner.

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Original location of Louise Thaden’s childhood home at 703 W. Central Avenue, Bentonville, Arkansas. Plans are being discussed to move the house to another location. Photo by Megan Byrnes.

Study up on and pursue your legal options. One of the strongest options available to preserve an historic property is called a preservation easement, covenant, or restriction. These are usually voluntary on the part of the property owner, and split property rights between the owner and an easement-holding entity like a state or historic preservation office or other non-profit organization. This status can be made legally binding so that if the owner wants to sell the building or make any changes, they must be approved by the organization. While it might be difficult to get an owner to agree to this type of arrangement (especially since they will be held responsible for the maintenance of the property!), it is worth a shot, particularly if the site is of irreplaceable local history and/or can generate potential revenue as a heritage tourist site.

Finally, remember that not every site can be saved, or be financially feasible as a historic site if preserved. However, proactive steps can be taken to study and document women’s and local history sites for posterity, and there are many national and state organizations that you can reach out to for help and advice. A few great places to start are the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites; the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Park Service’s page of historic preservation links, including listings by state.

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Before its demolition was called off, the Thaden House was about to meet the same fate as its 100-year-old neighbor. Photo by Megan Byrnes.

For now, Louise Thaden’s home and other houses like it, have been granted a brief reprieve, but it is up to us and other concerned constituents to make an active effort to save the unique local and women’s histories in our towns for future generations.

[1] According to the National Register of Historic Places program, “National Register status does not…interfere with a private property owner’s right to alter, manage, or dispose of property.” Additional information about the National Register guidelines can be found here

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