“I’m not known as an activist,” Jackie Warren told me with a pause, “well, I guess I am now.” She had just finished telling me about how she and a small group of women at Drury University saved Rose O’Neill’s last home from the wrecking ball. That’s right, women’s history has officially defeated an impending parking lot on the east side of Drury University’s campus in Springfield. The university needed parking for a new dorm, and planned to tear down a little gingerbread style house on Summit Avenue for the purpose. But when Jackie saw a bulldozer in the yard of the Rose O’Neill house, and then the garage being torn down, she flew into action.
She called the University president and organized a core group of women to convince the ruling party that this little house was significant – that Rose O’Neill was so integral to our cultural canvas that the house should be saved and used to further her legacy. Then they had to get to work raising funds – the house was structurally sound, but cosmetically it needed quite a bit of work. The University did not have the money to save the house. The women would need to come up with it on their own. “It literally came down to parking or history,” Jackie said. Jackie and her crew met with fund raisers and reached the monetary goal for saving the house. Three years later, the house is open as an active part of Drury University.
Rose O’Neill built the little house on Summit Avenue in 1904 for her nephew, who was having trouble supporting himself – helping people was a regular habit of hers. Forty years later, she spent her final days in the house, passing away there in 1944. The little house has an open space on the first floor, probably used as a parlor, a dining area and three small bedrooms upstairs. While Rose O’Neill didn’t spend the bulk of her life there, the little house provides a unique space to remember her, and the university has some very cool things planned just for that purpose.
Seeing the house as an extension of a liberal arts education, it will be used to foster Rose O’Neill’s legacy – her nonconformist ideals, her independent spirit, her social activism, as well as her talents as an illustrator, a writer, and a very serious artist who exhibited works internationally. The open parlor area is set up as a salon. Several small reproductions of of Rose O’Neill’s Sweet Monster drawings are on display along with a large photograph by local artist Jule Blackmon. An adjoining room will house an office and has a few pieces of local artwork inspired by O’Neill. Seeing Rose O’Neill’s work alongside the work of local artists reminds one of the timelessness of Rose O’Neill’s legacy.
The house will be open to Drury students and community members to use as Rose O’Neill used her salon spaces: an area where artists can come together, share ideas, energize, and create. Plans are also in the works for a Rose O’Neill scholar who will have the opportunity to live in the house and immerse themselves in the surroundings, while completing special projects based on O’Neill’s life. The opportunities for infusing her legacy into the liberal arts education seem endless.
When I walked through the Rose O’Neill house, I was struck by this different method of connecting me with her. Rooms are not roped off and inaccessible. I was a visitor, but felt like an active part of the space. Meshing work from today’s artists and an open salon space with O’Neill’s artwork made her less of a one-dimensional figure somewhere back in time. I was experiencing her life in a new way, one with a great deal of relevance to mine.
The small group of women who saved this house are just as inspirational as Rose O’Neill. Not that long ago, women fought to save men’s historic properties while letting our own history go by the wayside. Women were taught to believe feminine experiences in the past were not as important as the masculine ones. So, it is refreshing to see a success like the Rose O’Neill house – a historic property saved by local women because they felt so inspired by a woman’s life that they didn’t shy away from the hard work needed to save it. One thing that Jackie hopes students will come away with after studying Rose O’Neill’s life is that, “if they have a dream – to be an artist, a painter, or anything – find mentors that you love. You can’t pick your family, but you can pick your mentors, and they will be the ones who will inspire you and stay with you your whole life.” I think I’ve found mine.