The room is now so still
08 October 2015 – Juan-Fernando León
This post had its genesis in an undergraduate course, “Doing Local and Community History” (taught by Amy Tyson) at DePaul University in Spring 2015. Through the course, the author, then-senior Juan-Fernando León, partnered with the Frances Willard Historical Association in Evanston, IL. Drawing on archival research he conducted at the Willard Archives, he was inspired to write the following.
In 2006 the Frances Willard Historical Association completed a faithful restoration of a key room in the Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, Illinois: the upstairs den. Serving as a library and study for suffrage and temperance reformer Frances E. Willard (1839-1898), the restored den visually freezes the space to a single moment in time: in this case, a period between 1889 (when the den was renovated) to 1898 (when Willard died). But what of the space’s longer history?
In 1911 the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union published a booklet called Historic Rest Cottage to commemorate the house where Willard lived and worked from 1865 until her death. They described the den as “the heart of Rest Cottage,” and noted that now “[t]he room is now so still!” That the den was described as “now so still” points to its history as a once active space–full of work and life. Literature surrounding the den shows that the space was in constant flux, both in its physical configuration and intellectual activity.
Intended initially as a maid’s bedroom when the house was constructed in 1865, the den occupies a rear room on the second floor of the original Rest Cottage. Sometime after Willard became involved with the temperance movement in 1874, and after meeting Anna Gordon (future WCTU president, Willard’s personal secretary and longtime companion) in 1877, the room became Willard’s office. When exactly Willard moved her office there is uncertain, but it was likely circa 1878-1880 during the construction of the “Annex,” an 8-room house connected to Rest Cottage, built for Willard’s newly widowed sister-in-law and her children to reside in. As Willard later wrote in 1894, moving her office to the “long and narrow” upstairs room allowed Willard to “be out of sight and away from the many interruptions” of the growing household. And indeed, the interruptions were many; when her sister-in-law’s family moved out of the Annex in 1885, WCTU workers moved in.
As Willard’s reputation in the temperance movement grew, newspaper articles help us reconstruct how the space functioned. In 1886 Louisiana reporter Caroline Merrick described the den as “a back room with book-lined walls, a heavy oak writing desk, unframed photographs […], an easy chair, and a window opening onto a porch overlooking the lawn and flower beds.” In 1888, the Chicago Tribune described the room as “crowded with souvenirs of places, people, and events. One window lights it, a broad lounge with inviting pillows stands in a recess […] There is litter in the room, but it is not a disorderly litter–it is merely that which busy-ness makes.”
In 1889, the den’s most drastic physical transformation occurred when Mrs. A. C. Thorp “started a subscription list” to raise a thousand dollars to renovate Willard’s crowded den: “It was fitted up tastefully, with best of light and ventilation, a chimney with an open grate, electric light, bay-window and a balcony.”
A photograph of the new den appeared in Anna Gordon’s posthumous biography of Willard. The room transformed from a “dingy” space to a “corner office” that afforded Willard greater ease in carrying-out her work. But soon after the den’s expansive renovation, the peace Willard found in Rest Cottage began to elude her. The years 1891 and 1892 brought immense grief for the Rest Cottage household. First, Julia A. Ames and then Mary Allen West, two members of Willard’s inner-circle, passed away, followed by Willard’s mother, Mary Thompson Hill Willard. For Willard, Rest Cottage became charged with sadness.
Quoting Willard, Anna Gordon explained, “Now that Frances Willard was motherless, Rest Cottage [was] only ‘a dumb dwelling.’ ” Willard coped with the loss of her mother by spending more time with friends in England. Thus, the restored den that visitors encountered at Rest Cottage was a place where Willard spent little time during the last six years of her life.
The 1911 WCTU publication on Rest Cottage explained that the den’s gilded age–and Willard’s place in it–dwindled as Willard “burned out her life in altruistic service” trying tirelessly to make “the world wider for women and more homelike for humanity.” When Willard died of complications from influenza in New York on February 18, 1898, a spontaneous memorialization of the original part of Rest Cottage began. Anna Gordon, along with Willard’s sister-in-law, and the WCTU were named the legal legatees on the estate and took steps to preserve Rest Cottage.The WCTU president described the house as a holy place, “a Mecca for the prayerful thought and devoted love of white ribboners [as temperance reformers were called] everywhere.” Rest Cottage gradually turned into a house museum, and in 1965 it became a National Historic Landmark.
To think about the den as a static space, a place so still, is inadequate. Restorations can only ever show one picture of a space’s fuller history. Certainly, the restored, expanded, and ventilated den speaks to Willard’s Progressive Era sensibility, but only a small photograph of the original den reminds modern visitors of Willard’s most active years in the room that meant so much to her life’s work.The den’s legacy hinges on its robust pre-expansion past, when the “little up-stairs bedroom” personified and re-energized Willard’s suffrage and temperance activism. The den’s physical transformation demonstrates how women’s social sphere expanded in the late 19th century. It is therefore incongruous to think that domestic and private spaces in the nineteenth century only operated within these boundaries. Indeed, the “heart of Rest Cottage” is the den–not only because of the one who occupied it but also because of what this space meant to women and social reformers, then and now.
Certainly, the now stillness of the den seems inelastic and difficult to overcome. How do we integrate the interpretation of multiple time periods to places already frozen in time by the mechanizations of historical restoration? One of the ways to begin to break the stillness is to demystify the restoration process. Although only a small photograph of the pre-1889 den is on display at the Willard House, Willard’s restored bedroom features a low-cost but effective display that features both extant photographs of Willard’s bedroom while she was living there, as well as fragments of the wallpaper that were recovered as part of the restoration excavation project (right).
When available, even yet-to-be restored rooms can feature visual evidence of a room’s prior history, as the Willard House has done in Mary Hill Willard’s bedroom (below, left). While such displays can be particularly effective for self-guided tours, docents and interpreters
could deliberately use artifacts (or replicas) as physical hyperlinks to disturb the stillness of a restored room. Imagine a trash-basket overflowing with papers–such as the one appearing in an original photograph of the den–strategically placed in the room so that docents could lead visitors to discussions about a time when the den looked differently. Surely, interpreted photographs and physical hyperlinks could work jointly to animate interaction and spur constructive conversations leading to fuller histories of seemingly still places.
~ Juan-Fernando León recently graduated summa cum laude with a BA in History from DePaul University and is completing a MA in History of Christianity at Wheaton College. As part of his course studies at DePaul University, he was introduced to the Frances Willard’s House in Evanston, which interaction turned into an internship and sparked his interest in 19th-century Christian women’s history.
 National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Twenty-Sixth Annual Meeting October 20-25, 1899 Seattle, Washington, (Chicago: Woman’s Temperance Publishing Association, 1899) 105.