The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace Garden Is Threatened with Erasure
In the mid-1950s, the Girl Scouts of the USA commissioned Clermont Lee to design a garden at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, the girlhood home of the organization’s founder in Savannah, Georgia. The “Birthplace” is a house museum and a national center for the Girl Scouts organization. The center’s avowed mission is “to build girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place.” Lee was among the earliest women to practice landscape architecture professionally in Georgia and was purportedly the first professional practitioner in Savannah. Throughout a groundbreaking career that included the renovation of five of Savannah’s historic squares (which brought her into conflict with the city), Lee was herself an exemplar of courage, confidence, and character—which is why recent plans by the Girl Scouts of the USA to erase the garden she created strike such a dissonant chord.
Soon after purchasing the girlhood home of its founder in 1953, the Girl Scouts of the USA commissioned Clermont Lee (1914–2006) to design a garden for the home that would be compatible with its historic character, circa 1850. In a time when it was rare to do so, Lee researched planting plans and plant types in an effort to create an historically accurate garden. Comprising intricate geometric shapes, the Victorian parterre garden that she designed connects the rear of the Regency-style home to the former stables and the street sidewalk. The walkways, made for visitors to stroll the perimeter of the garden, were lined with tile edging and filled with gravel, while the beds were planted with perennials and shrubs appropriate to the mid-nineteenth century. Lee was actively involved in the maintenance and care of the garden until 1998, and her design and original planting plan are still intact.
After earning an M.L.A. from Smith College in 1939, Lee eventually became known as the foremost expert in recreating historic landscapes in Savannah. A capable designer of contemporary urban landscapes, from 1951 to 1972 she developed and oversaw the renovation of five of the city’s famous squares. Lee also worked to establish the licensure of landscape architects in the State of Georgia, becoming the fourth registered landscape architect in Georgia herself (and the first woman to register).
The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace has become a tourist center for Girl Scouts nationwide, who come to the home to learn about the origins of their organization and about its founder. It was designated a National Historic Landmark—the first in Savannah—in 1965 (only the house was designated, but the designation could be updated to include the garden).
Recently under new management, the Girl Scouts of the USA has announced a plan to "renovate" the garden created by Clermont Lee by demolishing the parterre design and replacing it with bluestone pavers and benches, edged with banana trees and azaleas. The stated aim of the plan, which was outlined in a letter that also sought donations to support the work, is to provide the Girl Scouts with an outdoor gathering and events space, and to bring the space into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Making historic properties accessible to all is not a unique challenge to this NHL-designated property. Creative design and interpretive solutions that balance the preservation of historic fabric with contemporary programmatic and code requirements are an achievable goal (it is also worth noting that designated historic sites are exempt from compliance with many of the ADA requirements, which is reflected in local ordinances). The Girl Scouts of the USA plans to break ground on the new outdoor space as soon as funds become available.
How You Can Help
Contact Lisa Junkin Lopez, the executive director of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, and ask her to reconsider plans to destroy the garden designed by Clermont Lee.
Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace
10 East Oglethorpe Avenue
Savannah, GA 31401
Phone: (912) 233-4501
Fax: (912) 233-4659