“Look up,” said the stranger. The colonial building was a shadow of its former self. Windows were removed, doors were relocated, machine-milled brick obscured its facade. A developer wanted to tear it down. It was practically demolished, he claimed. Nothing left of historic value. I feared he was right. But, as suggested, I directed my gaze upward. A thick layer of netting covered the roof. It was torn in a few places. Wind rustled the tattered fabric revealing a pristine, decorative cornice. If I hadn’t looked up, I would have missed it.
Those two simple words had a lasting impact. And so did the person who uttered them. Her name was Jean Barr. She was 83 years old the day we met. Historic preservation was one of many causes she championed.
Jean knew a lot about that building. Many had passed through its doors. Mariners, hostesses, barkeepers, patrons, cigar sellers, chefs, guests, mothers, fathers, children. And, some say, escaped slaves on the path to freedom.“Keep looking,” she said,“you’ll see old brick too.” Despite the developer’s claims, the original facade was still there. Armed with facts, Jean would fight to save the building. She would eventually prevail.
That chance meeting changed my perspective. I learned that preservation isn’t just about conserving materials and facades. It also involves documenting the lives of those who came before us. And sometimes those legacies help give a structure historical significance.
Jean’s life story was equally compelling. Farmer, hunter, veteran, nurse, academic, sailor, neighbor, volunteer, caregiver, leader, activist. A rich existence peppered with amazing achievements. Problem was she rarely talked about herself. Jean was far more interested in what others had to say. Publishing oral histories was one of her pastimes. It seems a fitting tribute to tell some of her stories that she shared with me over the years.
Jean grew up in a log cabin. Chopping wood, hunting for dinner, a childhood in the Wild West. Years later, she could still wield an axe … and use a shotgun.
Every summer, she worked at a farm. Cooking and baking, from sunrise to sunset, a pastoral and pleasant upbringing. Her chili recipe, a block party favorite, dates back to this time.
During World War II, Jean worked as a nurse. Newborn babies, a room full, nearly froze to death one night. Her makeshift heater — built out of spare parts — saved those lives.
An expert in family therapy, she was a regular fixture on radio talk shows. Dr. Dan Gottlieb, host of WHYY’s Voices in the Family, was one of her students.
After years of renovating, “a pile of bricks with a view” became Jean’s longtime residence. It was featured on 20 different open house tours.
Her walls were covered with unique artwork, lovingly framed and displayed. These were mementos of successful collaborative treatments with the artists.
For many years, Jean volunteered at the Philadelphia Flower Show. She also filled in no-show shifts, sometimes working 12 hours straight.
Jean shared her interests with others. Neighbors were invited to join her theater outings, overseas travel adventures, and exercise classes … which she began deep into her 80s.
Her basement was surprisingly empty, except for a lone anchor resting on the floor. This was a remnant of the years she spent sailing down the Chesapeake.
One winter, Jean and her cousins traveled the country together in a Winnebago. At age 90, she was the youngest of the group … but she wasn’t the driver.
Although she wasn’t religious, Jean had a lifelong interest in spirituality. At the end of her life, she was accepted into Philadelphia Tibetan Community.
Jean died on Nov. 30, 2019. There was more to her life than this. But I’ll stop here. Thanks to Jean, I look up. And I listen. And, more importantly, I pay tribute to people, not just places.