Thursday, April 22, 2010

House Tour Preview: Margaret Sanger’s Window

Margaret Sanger in a photograph she included in her book My Fight for Birth Control with the caption "Suburban Motherhood."

In 1998, Margaret Sanger was included in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the Century for her relentless crusade for women’s rights, and especially for birth control (a term she coined) as the tool with which women could take control of their lives. The revelations that led her to this vocation came in the tenements of the Lower East Side in 1912, two years after she left Hastings.

Margaret came to our town with her architect husband in 1904, recovering from the birth of her first child and a bout of tuberculosis, but full of hope for a life of motherhood and stability. She left in 1910, healthy again and bored with suburbia, anxious only to return to her nursing career and “the great Pageant of Living” in Manhattan.

In her 1931 book My Fight for Birth Control, she said that, looking back, she could see how every detail of her past life contributed to her final calling. Margaret had a love/hate relationship with the house that her husband designed for the family in Hastings’ Locust Hill, a development just east of North Broadway that included lots along Edgars Lane, Sheldon Place, Minturn Street. For Margaret, the house represented both a happy family life and the narrow suburban values that she would later struggle to change.

“In looking about the suburbs for a suitable location in which to build and bring up our family, we decided that we needed something more than a mere house. We wanted space. We wanted a house with a view. We wanted a garden. At Hastings-on-Hudson we came across a new development consisting of about fifty acres of hillside land overlooking the river. The land had been purchased by a group of professional people with the idea of developing a colony of homes for men and women of congenial tastes, and to insure a proper environment for their children. We were delighted with its possibilities. We bought an acre of this land with high hopes. We were going to have our own home at last! We were going to settle down for life. We were delighted with our neighbors. We planned a large family; a comfortable serene, suburban existence. …

The Hudson River looking west from the Locust Hill development, ca. 1915.

Ours was but one of several houses then in the early stages of construction. We were brought in close contact with our neighbors who were facing similar problems, the two primary ones being the building of a home and the rearing of a family. The wives spent their afternoons together conferring on these monumental problems. Out of our informal meetings there sprang a “literary” club… . It was made up of the wives of the artists, professors, scientists, doctors, and high school teachers who made up our little colony. There was an inclination, among both husbands and wives, to sink back into a complacent suburban attitude, to enjoy petty middle class comforts. For the wives, the height of adventure was a day “in town”—a shopping expedition followed by a bargain matinee. This adventure would furnish conversation for us all. At the “literary” club we read papers on Browning, George Eliot, Shakespeare, closely following the suggestions of the courses given at Columbia University. But deep in my soul I could not suppress my own dissatisfaction with the futility of such interests.

Meanwhile our house was nearing completion. It was “modern” in architecture, one of the first of its kind in this vicinity. It was even called a “show” house, and people came from far to study its simple design and the unadorned surfaces of the fireproof stucco of its walls.

Great was our anticipation of the day of its completion. For weeks we both worked on our “rose window,” which was to surmount the open staircase which led upstairs from the library. Every petal had been cut, leaded, and welded together by our own hands. After the baby had been put to bed, we worked far into the night. It seemed to me as if this rose window was the very symbol of the stability of our future. …

At last our furniture was moved in. Carpenters and painters were pushed out. Everything was completed and finished. … Weary at last but like happy children on Christmas Eve, we tumbled into bed. We were rudely awakened a few hours later by a pounding at the door and the shout of the German maid—“Madam, come! come! A fire in the big stove!” The house was on fire!

There was no telephone within half a mile of the house. My husband ran in his night clothes to sound the alarm, but it was already too late.

The Sangers' house (background, right) in Locust Hill, ca. 1910.

I carried my terror-stricken son Stuart to the top of the staircase. Flames were then leaping through one side of it. I was confronted with a terrific danger: dare I venture down those steps? I knew I must. I put the bath robe over the child’s head, and pressing close to the other side of the wall I descended cautiously but finally to safety. I crossed the street to our nearest neighbor’s. I tucked the youngster into an impromptu bed with a prayer of gratitude that we had escaped with our lives.

In a few moments the flames that were consuming the staircase had swept through our precious beautiful rose window! This I realized as I stood gazing from the neighbor’s window into the night. … I recalled our cut fingers, our bleeding hands, our irritated nerves, our fatigued eyes, all the loving hopes and ambitions which had gone into that window. …

I stood there amazed, but I was certain of a relief, of a burden lifted, a spirit set free. … Somewhere at the back of my mind I saw the absurdity of placing all of one’s hopes, all of one’s efforts … in the creation of something external that could perish irretrievably in the course of a few moments. … My scale of suburban values had been consumed in the flames, just as my precious rose window of leaded glass had been demolished. …

Fortunately, the construction of the house was fireproof, and while the inside woodwork, doors and floors were badly damaged there was the possibility of quick restoration. Within a few months the place was renewed, and life went on apparently as if the fire had never been. But to me all was different. …

A new spirit was awakening within me; a strong, insistent urge to be in the current of life’s activities. I felt as if we had drifted into a swamp and had to wait for the tide to set us free. The fire, the destruction of the rose window, had done this. I was never happy in that house again. The first opportunity we had to sell it we let it go. We moved our three children back to New York to take our part individually or collectively in the great ‘Pageant of Living.’”

Teacher Jessie Trube and her kindergarten students, ca. 1908. The boy in the center of the front row is Stuart Sanger, Margaret's eldest son. The other children are neighbors of the Sangers, and "Bennett's Shack," where Jessie taught at this time, may have been an outbuilding of the R. Grant Bennett who lived on Sheldon Place.

Margaret and William Sanger’s house will be part of our May 22 & 23 house tour. For more information and to purchase tickets, follow this link.
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