Emma Leake Chenoweth was already 61 years old when she founded the
chapter of the Daughters of the
But age didn't keep her from attempting something that a lot of people thought was crazy.
Marshalling their money through fund-raising tea parties, cake sales and masked balls, Chenoweth and the 40-some members of her group bought the dilapidated Colonial storehouse on Main Street for the then-considerable sum of $6,000. On Oct. 19, 1924 - the 143rd anniversary of the British surrender at
- they staged a dedication ceremony for the run-down building that left many onlookers gaping.
Intent on promoting both their purchase and this historic but little-known town, the ladies left no stone unturned, luring more than 2,000 people - including the governor and his wife - to their celebration. One thousand soldiers from nearby
marched down the street, joined by a contingent of sailors. The battleship Wyoming lay at anchor in the river off
Seventy-five years later,
Day is still celebrated each fall with flag-waving fervor. The town and surrounding battlefield have been largely preserved by the National Park Service, due - in no small part - to the persistence of Chenoweth and the DAR.
Still standing, too, is the Old
, which just this spring was named to the Virginia Landmarks Register.
Painstakingly restored during the Depression, the structure draws praise today as one of only two brick storehouses to survive from Colonial Virginia. Yet equally important, scholars say - especially during National Historic Preservation Week - is the building's significance as a milestone in the preservation movement.
"It took a lot of stamina and a lot of faith for Mrs. Chenoweth and her ladies to make this project work - especially when a lot of people were calling them crazy," says Mary Ruffin Viles, an architectural historian at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
"These women were the ones who took the initiative - who made these issues important. And they went at it with missionary zeal."
Erected about 1721 by merchant Richard Ambler, the handsome brick structure originally served as a storehouse and sales room in what was then a thriving town of some 3,000 people. It also was the place where Ambler collected customs duties for the crown, overseeing the busiest port between Philadelphia and Charleston.
All three of Ambler's sons followed in his footsteps, but the last sold the property after the Revolution. In subsequent years, the 2 1/2-story building was used as both a dwelling and store and - during the Civil War - the headquarters of Confederate Gen. John B. Magruder. In the 1880s, African- American physician D.M. Norton began seeing his patients in the old counting room. He converted the second floor into a private school for black students.
By 1924, when it was finally acquired by the DAR, the aging landmark also had served as a bank, a barbershop and a military barracks. Though the structure survived largely intact, its roof leaked badly, the front porch had collapsed, and all the window shutters were missing or broken.
Some members of the organization in other parts of the state wondered why Chenoweth and the Comte de Grass Chapter - as the
group was called - bothered to care about such a building. But the minutes of their meetings in 1923 and 1924 show that the ladies had grave concerns about the area's future.
Out on the historic battlefield, a huge resort hotel was rising, its sprawling site surrounded by the links of an emerging golf course. Yet few other people recognized the threat such a development posed to the place where the Revolution was won.
"They were very worried about everything being swallowed up by this golf course - and turned into apartments - and they especially wanted to see the Old
preserved," says Martha Edwards, the current regent of the chapter.
"Bless those little old ladies' hearts. They didn't have jobs. They didn't have any way of making money. They had to hold a lot of bake sales to pay this place off."
In addition to saving the
, the DAR - in concert with the
- proved indispensable in persuading the federal government to establish the predecessor of Colonial National Historical Park in 1930.
Only the year before, the ambitious women had embarked on another project, commissioning renowned Richmond architect W. Duncan Lee - who had directed the restoration of Carter's Grove - to work on their ramshackle property.
The $60,000 project represented an enormous financial commitment in 1929 - one the chapter may not have been able to undertake without the assistance of benefactor Letitia Pate Evans. But what resulted was a structure that not only incorporated a historically significant Colonial Revival treatment but also retained much of its original Colonial floor plan and building material.
"This is an original door - and we struggle with it sometimes. It opens so slowly it can set off the alarm," first vice regent Ann Clark says.
"Some people call it an annoyance, but I call it a thing of beauty. It's one of the details we're trying to preserve for the future."
future was the primary reason behind the chapter's recent efforts to place the property on the state's landmarks register. Though located within
historic district, the structure was not individually listed until this spring, Clark says.
The chapter also has assembled a group of preservation consultants to guide such crucial repairs as repointing the building's much-praised Colonial walls.
Like the women who took care of the
before them, they're determined to leave an irreproachable record of stewardship.
"It's a very important detail in a building like this," Clark says, gazing at the distinctive shadows cast by the handmade Colonial bricks.