Women in Preservation and the Enduring Legacy of Sarah Turner Butler
SOURCES: Women’s Hidden Roles in Historic Preservation By Laura Kise for Keperling Preservation Services, August 2021, 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.
Prior to Europeans coming to America are some of the first examples of what we could deem historic or cultural preservation in America. These unique stories did not always include preservation of the built environment, but their efforts did contribute to preservation of culture. One way these groups maintained their traditions and cultural heritage within a broader American culture was through folklore and storytelling. These traditions are often attributed most to the elders of the groups, particularly the female elders. The legacy of “native storytellers” is a well-known tradition in the Native American culture. These women were the primary means of passing stories on to subsequent generations, to educate and protect their culture and values, as men’s roles (e.g., hunting and fighting) often limited their ability to act as narrators.
African Americans also played a pivotal role in preserving their cultural heritage and contributing to modern American culture. Enslaved African Americans were prevented from learning to read and write. However, those enslaved adapted by telling folktales of their heritage. As with Native women, many of their voices and stories were lost to history. Since the abolition of slavery, more African American women have prevailed in preserving their culture and have been able to do so with more resources at their disposal. Mary B. Talbert (pictured below) was one African American woman who specifically focused on preservation of African American heritage. She also contributed to preserving the built environment by saving the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, after initial efforts by others were unsuccessful.
Most chronological accounts of the history of historic preservation agree that the earliest recognized formal example of historic preservation was the founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1791. Its founding is credited to Jeremy Belknap, a clergyman and historian. His pioneering act paved the way for other communities and groups, including women, to establish successful means of recording, preserving, and restoring history. However, little is noted about the roles that women may have played in this historical endeavor. Subsequently, several other organizations for history and preservation were formed, buildings were saved from decay or demolition and even restored, and museums opened. Notably, women were involved in many grassroots efforts. One famous early example was that of the monument to commemorate the Battle of Bunker Hill. Several women were part of a group in the 1820’s that initially championed the creation of a monument and were at the helm of organized fundraising events for the monument. Sarah Josepha Hale was probably the most famous among them. Harriot Hunt also contributed to and lauded these efforts by her fellow female activists.
However, it was not until perhaps the mid-nineteenth century when Ann Pamela Cunningham – often credited as the American Preservation Movement’s Founding Mother – inspired a preservation movement. Finally, a woman was given specific recognition for preservation. Cunningham was appalled at the state of George Washington’s monumental Mt. Vernon Estate, and in 1853, inspired by her own mother’s concerns, penned an article about it that was published in a Charleston, South Carolina newspaper. Even in the 1850s, the estate of the “Father of our Country” was threatened by a combination of neglect and speculators hoping to develop it for profit. Not even the tumultuous time period, including threat of secession and civil war, could squelch Cunningham’s entreaty. Her pleas were answered by like-minded women all over the country. The result was the chartering of the Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association, and America’s first nationwide preservation campaign was underway. After several years the Association was successful in saving and preserving the property. This success-story spurred other preservation movements, and modern-day preservationists esteem Cunningham’s efforts as having set the stage for things that are still done today. Countless other named and unnamed women from various cultural and ethnographic backgrounds contributed to preservation and general history through the years. But many diminished or even scoffed at the work of these women. For a large part of American history, those women’s twentieth century successors were jokingly referred to as “little old ladies in tennis shoes standing in front of bulldozers.” However, as Elizabeth Byrd Wood – a past editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation – pointed out, the 1966 enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act created credibility and jobs for people to make a recognized career out of preservation.
Women have also played a central role in historic preservation here in Columbus. Many of Historic Columbus’ earliest leaders were women and today, we honor one of them – Sarah Turner Butler. Sarah Louise Turner Butler (Weezie) 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.
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 below) 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. 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. 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 carefully 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.'”
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 (pictured above), the Pemberton House, and 700 Broadway for Historic Columbus. 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 (pictured below). Historic Columbus’ highest honor, the Sarah Turner Butler Heritage Award, was created and named for her in 1984. The award has been given 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.
Without Weezie Butler many things we find special about Columbus would not be here. When Mrs. Butler passed in 2012, she left a planned gift to Historic Columbus to ensure our future as an organization. The Historic Columbus Board of Directors then established the Sarah Turner Butler Investment Fund with that gift. The Fund's mission: to establish a permanent fund that operates for two purposes; 1. To provide annual funding to further the operational needs of Historic Columbus and 2. To provide capital for purchases and projects consistent with the mission of Historic Columbus. The Butler Fund is helping to make HCF’s single largest project and investment in historic preservation possible. During the pandemic, the Historic Columbus Board developed three top priority areas to include developing a new vision for Heritage Park and the Chattahoochee Promenade in the original city.
The overall concept of the project is to revitalize the Chattahoochee Promenade and expand the history of our city told by moving the industrial history elements from Heritage Park to the Promenade and creating the new Swift History Trail, return the Heritage Park property to residential use, and save five endangered historic structures (including the historic house currently located on the Promenade). Once moved, Historic Columbus’ commitment for the five houses would then be to stabilize them with new foundations, new roofs, and restored exteriors. The houses would then be transferred to the W.C. Bradley Co. to complete the renovations and sell them as single-family homes in a profit – sharing arrangement with Historic Columbus.
Heritage Park continues through the design and planning phase, soon moving to the final pricing and construction phase. The five houses that will be moved to the site will range in size from 1,200SF to nearly 4,000SF. Historic Columbus will move the structures on site, take them through a stabilization process including new roofs and foundations and then turn the properties over to the W.C. Bradley Co. who will facilitate hiring a residential contractor to finish and sell the homes. The anticipated completion of the houses will likely be late 2023 or early 2024. Historic Columbus will be funding the entire project with cash we have on hand in the range of between $2.5 to $3 million. The funding for this large-scale effort is only feasible because of the Sarah Turner Butler Investment Fund, the donors of the 2016 Save Me A Place Capital Campaign, and a donation from Clifford and Bobsie Swift for the project, along with grants and other fundraising, as necessary. Once we have a timeline for the groundbreaking ceremony, we will let everyone know. We will also be creating a new marketing effort with Yalla PR for the project. Stay tuned!
Weezie Butler loved her community, strongly believed in the mission of HCF, and is enabling this organization to continue to save our town's places and stories for future generations to come. Her story matters. I hope you will stay with us each week as we continue to celebrate the importance of several women to the history and future of historic preservation in Columbus. NEXT WEEK: Janice P. Biggers and her incredible contributions to historic preservation and Historic Columbus.