September 23, 2014

A New Chapter for the Frances Perkins Homestead

  • By: Geoff Montes

In the small town of Damariscotta, Maine, members of the Frances Perkins Center are working to preserve not only the legacy of Frances Perkins, who became the first female member of a Presidential cabinet in 1933, but also her ancestral homestead and lifelong summer residence several miles away.

The property is situated on the Damariscotta River, and has served agricultural, industrial, and residential functions for the Perkins family beginning in the 1750s. Today, the 57-acre homestead is a private residence that remains in the family.

The exterior of the Frances Perkins Center.

photo by: Frances Perkins Center

The Perkins Homestead in 2013.

In 2009, the homestead was listed to the National Register of Historic Places with the encouragement of the Perkins family, the State Historic Preservation Office, and Center founders. Listed as the “Brick House Historic District,” the site was named for the residential portion known as the Brick House, which was completed in 1837. Here, Perkins spent childhood summers with her grandmother, a tradition that would live on even after her grandmother passed.

The Frances Perkins Center in 1960.

photo by: Cervan Robinson

The homestead was photographed in July 1960 for the Historic American Buildings Survey.

Born in 1880, Perkins worked her way to become the first female cabinet member in U.S. history and was named Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Her commitment to ensuring the passage of crucial New Deal policies such as the Social Security Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, and National Industrial Recovery Act cannot be overstated. Indeed, Perkins spent her entire career committed to serving and protecting the interests of American workers, a legacy that has resounding effects today.

In order to draw attention to Perkins’ enduring contributions and give the homestead the recognition it deserved, the FPC nominated the entire Historic District as a National Historic Landmark in December 2013, securing the recommendation of the National Park System Advisory Board the following May. The proposed Perkins Homestead National Historic Landmark is currently awaiting final approval from Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Frances Perkins Center Board member Sarah Peskin, who wrote and presented the Historic Landmark nomination, said that the organization has embraced several guiding principles as it reaches an agreement to acquire the homestead from the Perkins family. Chief among these principles is keeping the integrity of the nationally significant site intact while fostering a modern approach to promote the economic and social achievements of Frances Perkins.

Following her graduation from Mount Holyoke in 1902, Perkins launched a career as a staunch advocate for workplace protections and regulations. In 1911, the issue took on heightened importance after she witnessed the horrors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. Following the tragedy, she became the executive secretary of the Committee on Safety, a citizen group which helped enact reforms pertaining to workplace health and safety.

By 1919, New York Governor Al Smith appointed her to sit on the Industrial Commission, which had a hand in making sure the new labor regulations were enforced. Smith’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, named her Industrial Commissioner in 1928, and she soon became the country’s most prominent state labor official. Yet, the national economy was on the brink of the Great Depression and Roosevelt, heeding the call to higher office, left New York to become the 32nd President of the United States.

Frances Perkins stands behind President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

photo by: FDR Presidential Library & Museum/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Perkins (center) served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945.

Upon assuming the presidency in 1933, Roosevelt appointed Perkins to be his Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman ever to serve in a presidential cabinet. In the new role, Perkins worked tirelessly to ensure crucial New Deal policies were passed, including a 40-hour work week, paid overtime, federal minimum wage, worker’s compensation, Social Security, and an end to child labor. From the onset of the Roosevelt administration, she was an active supporter of sweeping public works programs designed to help put unemployed workers back on their feet.

Perkins stayed in Roosevelt’s cabinet throughout his entire presidency, becoming the longest-serving Secretary of Labor at that point in history. She was then appointed by President Truman to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, where she stayed until 1953. Perkins passed away in 1965 at the age of 85 in New York, having taught at Cornell in the years after leaving the public sector. But she always considered the Brick House her true home.

According to Peskin, the Center plans to preserve the Brick House residential complex in its current state and continue their popular homestead tour program. Additionally, they envision the site as a possible “learning center” that will use its historic setting for public seminars, discussion groups, fellowships, and other educational forums intended to foster current day applications of Perkins’ esteemed legacy.

Frances Perkins and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

photo by: Kheel Center/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Frances Perkins (left) and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

With the final National Historic Landmark approval for the property imminent, the Perkins Homestead stands to become a worthy addition to the country’s nationally recognized historic places. As National Trust President Emeritus Richard Moe put it in his recommendation letter for the site, the designation will be especially important because our landmarks “should include more sites that acknowledge the significant contributions of accomplished women, particularly those who dedicated themselves to improving the lives of others less fortunate than themselves.”

Update March 9, 2017: The Frances Perkins Homestead was designated a National Historic Landmark by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on September 30, 2014.

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