May 12, 2022

People Saving Places: Johanna A. Favrot and Cynthia Woods Mitchell

Over the last 50 years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has invested a total of more than $50 million in grants supporting direct action and grassroots preservation for historic places across the United States. The National Trust’s grantmaking portfolio includes opportunities ranging from large-dollar funding programs, such as the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, to small-dollar, catalytic seed funding, such as the Johanna Favrot Fund for Historic Preservation and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors.

The Favrot and Mitchell Funds are named in honor of two extraordinary women who have made a profound impact on historic preservation through their philanthropy, passion for preserving historic buildings, and determination to return historic places to vibrancy and use.

Overhead shot of a Mexican Hacienda. A sprawling estate.

photo by: Favrot Family

View of Jalmolonga, a former Jesuit hacienda that was restored by Johanna Favrot.

Johanna (Netty) A. Favrot

Johanna (Netty) A. de Kanter grew up in Mexico City, the child of the Dutch Consul to Mexico. Her parents regularly hosted other dignitaries from Mexico and throughout Europe and exposed Favrot and her four siblings to some of the finest examples of European and Mexican arts and culture. It was in Mexico City that she also started to take a special interest in historic buildings, with a particular affinity for haciendas.

Having grown up near the San Angel Inn in Mexico City and later getting married to Laurence H. Favrot in another lovely hacienda, Favrot dreamed of one day restoring one herself. But she was equally affected by the past cultural traditions of Mexico, especially the way of life practiced in the sprawling haciendas that dotted the countryside.

Later in life, she recalled: “Every time we took family outings beyond the limits of Mexico City, we would run across the rubble of one or more grand buildings burnt by the revolutionaries during the Mexican social upheavals of 1914, around the time of my birth. How my heart ached for those old places, some of them over 200 years old.”

Decades later, Favrot returned to Mexico as a widow and empty nester, searching for a hacienda to restore. In the 1960s, she purchased the monumental ruins of Jalmolonga, State of Mexico, located about 100 miles from Mexico City. When she purchased the site, it was a complex of grand but badly deteriorating 17th- and 18th-century historic buildings that was once used as a Jesuit hacienda, sustained by its mill, and acres of sugar cane worked by hundreds of enslaved peoples.

Her vision was to bring the colonial-era site back to life for her family’s use. It took several years of painstaking restoration for Favrot to clear out the overgrown property, bring in electricity and water, and create a livable, stable space. By the early 1970s, she had accomplished what at first seemed impossible, and she shared the site with its first visitors.

Favrot's achievement, vision, and tenacity in restoring Jalmolonga inspired the creation of the Johanna Favrot Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In July 1994, the Johanna Favrot Fund for Historic Preservation was created in honor of Netty Favrot’s 80th birthday. The fund aims to save historic environments in order to foster an appreciation of our nation’s diverse cultural heritage and to preserve and revitalize the livability of the nation’s communities.

A woman in a white skirt and colorful top leaning over beautiful pink flowers.

photo by: Favrot Family

Netty Favrot at Jalmolonga, ca. 1990.

Cynthia Woods Mitchell

Cynthia Woods Mitchell and her husband George P. Mitchell played a significant role in the revitalization of Galveston, Texas, beginning with the 1871 League Building in 1973 and extending to the Strand National Historic Landmark District, Galvez Hotel, and many more. Mitchell's interest in historic preservation was inspired by exposure to the beautiful but deteriorating historic buildings throughout her hometown of Galveston.

Mitchell's excitement and vision for how historic preservation can play a role in a city’s future is detailed in a foreword—written by her—for a book called “Historic Galveston”:

“In the manner of archaeologists who chip painstakingly at layer after layer of surface soil to unearth priceless antiquities, today’s planners, architects and restoration specialists, engineers and builders, artisans and craftsmen are working together to strip from aging Galveston structures the veil of dust and decay, and all too frequently, the ill-conceived “remodeling" efforts of bygone days to recreate the lively facades. The Galveston that was is becoming the Galveston that is. The history we extol is the hallmark of Galveston’s future.”

Once Cynthia and George Mitchell made the decision to start purchasing some of Galveston’s (ultimately, 18) historic properties to restore them, her special contribution was guiding the interior design and adaptive reuses of the buildings. Her natural talent and keen sense of what was needed in any period or genre superseded the fact that she never had formal design training.

In 2001, the pair received the National Trust’s highest national recognition, the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award, which honors individuals for their lifetime achievement in the preservation field. The Mitchells were recognized for a quarter century of dedication and success in preserving and revitalizing historic Galveston Island, demonstrating exemplary personal commitment, vision, and leadership in preserving the spirit of the place they called home.

A man and a woman standing in front of the Tremont Hotel in Galveston, Texas.

photo by: Mitchell Family

Cynthia and George Mitchell in front of the Tremont Hotel, one of their projects where Cynthia’s design influence shines.

Over time, the couple’s preservation efforts expanded beyond Galveston, and they became interested in supporting other efforts throughout the U.S. In July 1997, George P. Mitchell made a generous gift to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to establish the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors in honor of his wife. The purpose of the fund is to assist in the preservation, restoration, and interpretation of historic interiors for projects located across the United States.

Legacy

Children of both women recall how their mothers were saddened by seeing historic structures in disrepair and were excited by the notion of being able to be a part of the building’s story by reviving them. Johanna Favrot and Cynthia Woods Mitchell’s important legacies and passion for preservation continue to live on through these grant funds, which together have awarded more than $4 million in funding, touching 624 projects across 49 states and the District of Columbia since their inception.

A picture of the Strand Historic District in Galveston, Texas.

photo by: Kent Kanouse/Flickr/CCBY-NC

The Strand Historic District in Galveston, Texas.

Established in their honor by family members in the mid-1990s and overseen by their children today, both funds carry a national scope and an ability to include brick and mortar expenses within project budgets, making them two of the National Trust’s most popular and competitive grant programs. At selection meetings that occur annually, members of the Favrot and Mitchell families convene alongside National Trust staff and external jurors to select the grantees, during which the meeting participants strive to channel the spirit and interests of the exceptional women the funds are named for.

Learn more about the types of projects funded by the Johanna Favrot Fund for Historic Preservation and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors.

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Lizzy Barringer is the associate manager, Grants & Awards at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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