Jana Shafagoj is Morven Park’s Director of Preservation, and as such is the caretaker of all things old and historic at the Park.
What does the phrase “historic preservation” mean to you? Does it instantly conjure up images of historic house museums like Morven Park? Or perhaps you think of an architectural review board deciding what can or cannot be done to private property within a historic district? What about an active citizens group working to save a site that is argued to be connected to the Civil War?
All of the above are part of the historic preservation field, but preservation, as practiced in the 21st century, is much, much more. It is finding ways for our historic buildings to evolve so they can continue to function within our modern society. It is protecting viewsheds, landscapes, and streetscapes that help define and serve our communities. It is helping to tell both the inspiring and difficult stories of our nation’s history. It is, above all, protecting the tangible to provide a link to the intangible past.
This 21st-century approach to preservation guides our work on the historic buildings at Morven Park. Take the splendid historic Davis Mansion as an example. The Mansion serves as a stage for the Davis story. Standing in the rooms you can experience how the Davises lived: the rooms are decorated as they were in the 1920s, the furniture is set out just as it appeared in early 20th century photos. We take tremendous pride in creating that experience for our visitors. On the surface, this looks like preservation in the true meaning of the word: preserving things exactly as they were at one specific moment in time.
But look a little deeper and you will quickly see that, in truth, the building has evolved so that it can continue to function within our society. The mansion is no longer a home, but a museum – arranged to provide a specific educational experience for our visitors. The north wing of the mansion features a bright and welcoming visitor center with modern doors that meet safety codes. Restrooms are arranged in an old guest bedroom near the visitor center. Modern ductwork carrying hot and cool air from a geothermal system snake through the mansion, maintaining temperature and relative humidity at a set standard to provide the best possible environment for our collection, our visitors, and our staff. Cloth-bound wiring, asbestos insulation, lead paint and other materials have all been removed from the mansion to ensure everyone’s safety. This is preservation.
If you stand on the mansion portico and look east towards the Potomac River, your eyes will fall on the sweeping mansion lawn and the well-tended fields and tree lines. Morven Park consists of 1,000 acres, and over 630 acres of it are protected with a conservation easement. We are proud of this open space and are committed to protecting it for generations to come. Our easement safeguards the view from the mansion towards the river, the wooded ridge behind it, the streams, and meadows. However, the easement also acknowledges that changes to the landscape may be necessary to ensure the long-term sustainability of Morven Park. To that end, the easement also includes guidelines and a review process for any future construction of additional roads, parking lots, and/or facilities such as a new visitor center, additional restrooms, and educational space. This is preservation.
Morven Park is a beautiful place due, in large part, to its age. The mansion’s portico has presided over Leesburg for almost 200 years and has witnessed a great deal of our nation’s history. History, just like our modern lives, is full of beauty and heartbreak – times of inequality that eventually (hopefully) turn into moments of justice. At historic sites like Morven Park, we can see the world through the eyes of past occupants, we can discover inspiration in their trials and triumphs, and we can find the threads of history that help us understand how our society came to be, and how we can help shape it for the future. There is something undeniably powerful in hearing the stories of the past while moving through the same spaces and landscapes. This is preservation.
Plan a trip to Morven Park this spring. Stroll the gardens, hike the ridgeline trails, tour the mansion, and explore the outbuildings. Morven Park’s original inhabitants have been gone for decades but because the buildings and surrounding landscapes survive, we can give them voices once again and experience the Park as it was while they lived here. This is preservation.
This is our work, our passion, and our contribution-- we hope you enjoy it!
If you would like to support preservation efforts at Morven Park, please consider making a tax-deductible donation here.