Sarah Louise Turner (Weezie) Butler: A Driving Force for Historic Preservation
This is our last history spotlight for Women's History Month, so it is appropriate that we highlight someone very special to Historic Columbus. Women have always played a central role in preservation – across the country and in Columbus. Today, we celebrate Weezie Butler and her contributions to Historic Columbus and our city.
This history spotlight was taken from
the 1986 Sarah Turner Butler Heritage Award script, Woman of the Year by Mary Margaret Byrne for Columbus Ledger (1968), Woodruff Award Committee for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, 187 Homes Saved From Destruction by Alfred Sawyer for the Columbus Ledger (1969), Road Priorities Threaten Renewal by Contance Johnson for the Columbus Leger (1971), and Historic Columbus Foundation: Champion of Columbus' Historic Resources (1966- 2006) by Dr. John S. Lupold.
Sarah Louise Turner Butler was born in 1920 in Columbus. She was the daughter of Don Abbott Turner and Elizabeth Bradley Turner and the eldest of the three grandchildren of W.C. Bradley and Sarah Hall Bradley. She graduated from Columbus High School and then received a degree from Wesleyan College in Macon. Her grandparents lived in what is now The Columbus Museum on Wynnton Road and across the street, The Wynn House, was owned by the Butler family at the time. As the story goes, she whistled at Clarence Butler as he was walking down Wynnton Road and a romance soon blossomed. They were married in 1942. They raised three children (Betsy, Chris, and Steve) and worked hard to make a difference in the community they loved.
Above: Elizabeth Bradley Turner with her three children (L-R) - Bill, Weezie, and Betty. Below: Dr. and Mrs. Clarence C. Butler
Weezie Butler was a proven community leader. She served on the committee for Consolidation of the City and County Government, the Community Planning Council, Highland House (first community nursing home), the Child Welfare Council, and the Junior League of Columbus.
In the early 1960s, the Junior League was looking for a project and Janice Biggers (pictured to the left) was leading the effort. Before terms like historic preservation and adaptive re-use were better known, Janice just wanted her town to look better. Janice was not alone in this hope for her community. Weezie soon joined her and became her co-instigator in every way in the early days of preservation.
Mrs. Butler actively participated to enrich the cultural and economic health of our town. It was her passion and fierce determination that would fuel the success in persuading the Columbus City Council to cancel scheduled demolition plans of the deteriorating homes south of the central business district. This was the moment that made historic preservation viable in Columbus. It changed everything. Her ardent support brought the fledgling Historic Columbus instant credibility. She used both her personal resources and connections in the community to advance the organization, and her interest in preservation attracted others to the movement. Her philanthropic way of life was an extension of her family legacy left to the community by her father and her grandfather.
The early days of preservation in Columbus had to have been interesting. It was only because of the determination and sheer will of HCF's founders that Columbus has retained any of its original architecture and character. It was also a bit of good luck. While Mrs. Butler was convincing City Council to stop their plans to level all of the older homes south of 9th Street, Joan Mize Holder, meanwhile, was on a plane. She happened to run into attorney Lee Adler, who helped found Historic Savannah. Joan convinced him to come to Columbus to help organize and advise the new group on what they needed to do next.
Lee Adler explained the hard reality to the group - the only thing that could truly turn the tide on full scale demolition in the original city was to establish a historic district. But first, they needed to complete a survey of all of the older structures. This would be the documentation they would need to nominate the area to the National Register of Historic Places. He also suggested the person to hire to do it. According to a 1969 article in the Columbus Ledger, Mrs. Butler, Janice Biggers, and Sen. Harry Jackson went to then Governor Lester Maddox in 1967 to request emergency funds for a survey. They were successful – Dr. Carl Feiss was hired to conduct the survey and work with Junior League volunteers – and two years later, as the headline reads in the article, “187 Homes Saved From Destruction.”
The Butlers worked tirelessly for the betterment of our town. After Historic Columbus was founded in 1966, they also answered the call to engage in a restoration project in the new historic district. They purchased a two-story house on 7th Street and asked architect Ed Neal to renovate the 1835 structure. The house sat restored and empty for three years until it was purchased in 1971. This was the first project in the original city where the public could see the potential for what the neighborhood could be once again.
Weezie Butler was a passionate, even feisty, preservationist. She was Historic Columbus’ first female president, serving from 1967 until 1971; chairman of the board from 1977 until 1986; and then chairman emeritus from 1986 until her passing in 2012. In the first newsletter (June 1970), she wrote, “Preservation is fun…It is a certain cure for boredom, for in this business there are few dull moments. Frantic, yes, but dull, never.” She conferred with and encouraged new Executive Director Janice Biggers on an almost daily basis.
Historic Columbus House Museums The Walker-Peters-Langdon House, The Pemberton House, and The Woodruff Farmhouse
She truly spent her adult life working to make Columbus a better place. Mrs. Butler was a life-long member of St. Luke United Methodist Church and served on the Boards of the W.C. Bradley Co., the Bradley-Turner Foundation, the Bradley Center Hospital, St. Francis Hospital, and the Columbus Chamber of Commerce where she served as the Chairman of the Health and Medical Affairs Committee. She also served on the Boards of The Columbus Museum, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Junior League of Columbus. She was an active member of the St. Francis Auxiliary, the Columbus Symphony Guild, the Junto Study Club, and the National Society of Colonial Dames. In 1968, Mrs. Butler was named "Woman of the Year" by the Business and Professional Women's Club. In the article by Mary Margaret Byrne, she states "It would be easy to say that Mrs. Butler and the Historic Columbus Foundation are changing the face of Columbus - but they are doing even better. They are keeping the best of our city, lovingly and carelfully preserved for generations to come to see what we were and how we lived."
"The selection of tiny, dynamic Mrs. Butler as Woman of the Year is the latest in a long line of civic honors that has come her way. She prefers to regard it as a tribute to the city's growing interest in historic preservation, and in a sense it is. But as another nominating letter pointed out, 'although many people are involved in this movement, Mrs. Butler is the focus of it.'” (Pictured to the right is Mrs. Butler with granddaughters Worth and Clare Williams.)
Demonstrating the power of transformation that historic preservation can bring to a neighborhood was important. As a result, Mrs. Butler was “hands on” in her leadership – in addition to personal investment in the restoration of several notable historic houses, she was also instrumental in acquiring the Walker-Peters-Langdon House (WPL), the Pemberton House, and 700 Broadway for Historic Columbus. These three historic houses helped to tell the history of our town and Columbus' ties to Coca-Cola to residents and visitors alike for many years - the WPL is still open for tours today. She was also deeply involved in the restoration and interior decoration for each of these structures. In total, Mrs. Butler refurbished eight structures contiguous to her beloved 700 Broadway. Below is a "before and after" of the Italianate Townhouse that served as HCF's Headquarters for almost 30 years. As the story goes, Janice and Weezie first entered a dilapidated 700 Broadway to consider acquiring it for the new headquarters only to quickly come out running down the street screaming and scratching and covered with fleas. Now that’s commitment to the cause.
Historic Columbus’ highest honor, the Sarah Turner Butler Heritage Award, was created and named for her in 1984. The award has been given 36 times since then to individuals, corporations, non-profits, and organizations for their outstanding contributions to historic preservation in our city and region through demonstrated leadership and commitment to the mission of Historic Columbus. As its first recipient, the Board had to keep this top secret from their Chairman. This is a copy of her thank you note after receiving the award. Dear Friends, It is a good thing I didn’t know that I was to receive the honor you gave me tonight at the Annual Meeting! I have never been more surprised and more honored in all my life. Although I still say that people who do things because they want to and enjoy doing shouldn’t be rewarded. When I was selected as Woman of the year, I was so embarrassed that I wouldn’t go to church that morning, didn’t answer the phone, and drank two martinis before the tea! I love my present and have placed it on the sideboard where it looks perfect! It means a lot to me even though HCF shouldn’t be so extravagant to its old Board Chairman. Thank you all for this outstanding honor. Now you know you’ve got me hooked for as long as you want me! I love you all, Weezie
Of course, we never let her go – and she never let us go either. We miss her terribly and hopefully; she is still proud of us. Without Weezie Butler and the four Historic Columbus Executive Directors (you'll see more about them in May!) - many things we find special about Columbus would not be here. For most people, historic preservation is about the places that have personal meaning to you. Fortunately for us all, Mrs. Butler loved this place we call home. Elizabeth B. Walden, HCF Executive Director
SHARE YOUR STORY
Historic Columbus is celebrating Women's History Month by sharing some of our community's history through the stories of individuals in our town. There is so much history that needs to be shared, and what you will see this coming month is just the beginning. More stories will continue to be shared each week throughout the year. Our community and our people have incredible stories, and Historic Columbus certainly doesn't know everything. We hope you will help us learn the rest of the story...your story, your family's story. Please consider sharing these stories with HCF to help create an oral history collection. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org. And don't worry, we will keep asking for your stories each month!
You can access ALL of Historic Columbus' History and Preservation Spotlights here: www.historiccolumbus.com/blog
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