The Secret Lives of Parks

Creating the Country’s First ‘Idea Park’

Episode Summary

What happens when a really important place doesn’t seem important to the people in charge? In 1978, Judy Hart was driven to create a new national park, even though people told her the places she wanted to save didn’t look like a national park. By recognizing the need to interpret women’s history, Hart changed the way the Park Service approaches the concept of national significance.

Episode Notes

In the late 1970s, only three national park sites out of 300 had specifically been created to interpret women’s history. Judy Hart, then a chief ranger for legislation in the National Park Service’s Boston office, knew she wanted to improve that number, but she wasn’t sure how.

Hart’s determination took her to Seneca Falls, New York, as well as Capitol Hill as she won people over with the power of her idea. She used every tactic at her disposal to honor notable leaders in the movement for women’s rights, even though the run-down buildings where they had once made history didn’t meet the standard of the time for what a national park was supposed to look like.

This episode, host Jennifer Errick speaks with Judy Hart about her quest to preserve nine buildings in Seneca Falls and Waterloo, New York; her new new book, “A National Park for Women’s History”; and why the concept of an “idea park” marked an important shift in thinking for the Park Service that allowed the agency to be more inclusive.

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Episode 27, Creating the Country’s First ‘Idea Park,’ was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher and Bev Stanton.

Special thanks to NPCA Mid-Atlantic Senior Program Director Pam Goddard.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer.

Learn more about Judy Hart’s new book, “A National Park for Women’s Rights,” at

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.

Learn more and join us at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 27
Creating the Country’s First ‘Idea Park’

Jennifer Errick: What happens when a really important place doesn't seem important to the people in charge?

In 1978, Judy Hart was driven to create a new national park, even though people told her the places she wanted to preserve didn't look like a national park. By recognizing the need to interpret women's history, Hart changed the way the park service approaches the concept of national significance.

I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is the Secret Lives of Parks.


On her second day at her new job in the Boston office of the National Park Service, Judy Hart got a phone call that would motivate her for years to come. Her counterpart in Washington, DC, legislative specialist Peggy Lipson, had an urgent question.

Were there any new park sites that Hart wanted Congress to consider creating in her region?

Hart had started her job as chief ranger for legislation during a time when the Carter administration actively sought to preserve new park sites around the country. Special legislation spurred Congress to create dozens of parks between 1978 and 1980, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, New River Gorge in West Virginia, and nearly all of the national park sites in Alaska. Congress actually mandated that the Park Service provide 12 ideas for new parks each year.

Judy Hart immediately knew what she wanted — sort of.

Judy Hart: My boss hadn't even arrived yet from Denver, and I called him at his motel and I said, "I want to propose for a region that we have a park on women's history." That was the beginning, middle, and end of my idea, a park on women's history. And he said, prophetically, "Cool. Go find one."

Jennifer Errick: Although women have been part of the history of every park in some way, very few sites are created with the purpose of interpreting women's history — a gap Hart was eager to help fill, even though she didn't yet know exactly how.

Judy Hart: Of the over 400 parks there are now, 14 are said to be focused on women. When I suggested my idea, there were 300 parks and three focused on women. Neither one of them is a very respectable percentage.

Jennifer Errick: Peggy Lipson was the only woman serving as a senior staff person in the Park Service headquarters at that time. And when she heard Hart's idea, she offered some advice that proved crucial.

Judy Hart: She got very excited immediately, sitting in a sea of men leaders. And she thought it was a fantastic idea, but she said, "If it hasn't already been declared nationally significant by the Park Service, it's dead in the water." Well, okay, that tells us where to start.

Jennifer Errick: Hart released a book last October about her Quest titled appropriately, A National Park for Women's Rights. In it, she writes, "I did not even have a place or person in mind, but I was on a mission. The day before Peggy's phone call, my first day in the new position, the first thing I had done was read the new Bicentennial Index of National Parks published in 1976. I was shocked, offended, and angry. The table of contents listed all the parks by categories, president's homes, battlefield sites, recreation areas, and so on. At the bottom of the table of contents, there was an asterisk and the statement, 'African-American history is interpreted in all the parks.' I knew that was not accurate, but there was not even an asterisk indicating that women's history was of any interest to the National Park Service."

Although Hart was new to her position in 1978, she wasn't new to the agency. She had joined the Park Service a year and a half earlier as the first woman to work in land acquisition and relocation, and the position had been a dream job for her. She had previously worked for the Federal Highway Administration in a role that had been something of a downer.

Judy Hart: I went to work in relocation and stopped a lot of projects that I thought were really crummy, ill thought out, harmful projects in the way that in that era they wanted to blast a multi-lane highway through some remaining middle-class neighborhoods in Boston. It was satisfying to stop bad things. But after doing that for several years, I thought, "I want to create things that are good."

Jennifer Errick: She came across a listing for the Park Service regional office near where she was living in Boston — not a job listing, mind you, but a listing in the phone book — and a light bulb went off for her.

Judy Hart: I'd taken a lot of heat working for the highway administration because I was always telling them, "No, you can't do that." And it was personally a very unpleasant place to work. I looked at that listing and I literally sat there and said to myself, "I bet they're nicer."

So, I quit and got a Master of Arts in law, and as soon as I finished that, I'm thinking, "I'm going to apply to the National Park Service and do positive things, create things rather than stopping bad things."

Jennifer Errick: Hart ultimately got the job she wanted, though the climate was different then. Women weren't allowed to serve as park rangers or wear authoritative clothes that were comparable to men's standard uniforms until 1978. There was a long awkward period when the Park Service hired women but subjected them to lower status jobs, dressed in cutesy skirts and impractical shoes without the Ranger's badge or flat hat. This was changing in the late 1970s, mainly due to the threat of a class action lawsuit. Hart was able to secure a position on the coveted Park Ranger job ladder, though it took a year long wait and a phone call with an equal employment opportunity officer. But by that point in her life, Hart was accustomed to defying expectations.

Judy Hart: The era that I grew up, I graduated from Cornell in '63. I frankly never considered that I would have a career. I barely considered that I would be working. I was supposed to marry somebody and follow him around.

Jennifer Errick: It might not have seemed like the time or the place to celebrate women's history, but Hart's idea had already struck a chord once she proposed it. She just had to figure out where in the northeast she could have the park that she wanted. Knowing that any potential park would need to be recognized as nationally significant, Hart went to the National Register of Historic Places, which is managed by the Park Service and looked through every site in her region. In the register, she discovered the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, New York.

Judy Hart: I'd never heard of her. I had no idea who she was and I didn't care. Her home was nationally significant and that's what Peggy said we had to have, and I said, "Great. We have a national park coming here."

[music break]

Jennifer Errick: Elizabeth Cady Stanton was of course a suffragist and a visionary leader in the movement for women's rights in the 1800s and early 1900s. She was the primary author of the Declaration of Sentiments, a manifesto for women's equality that served as the centerpiece for the Women's Rights Convention of 1848, which she also helped to organize. Stanton's home was not the only significant building in Hart's region.

Judy Hart: I discovered that the Wesleyan Chapel was still standing and the home where they wrote the Declaration of Sentiments was standing and home where they held the tea party was all still standing. So I got to go out on that first reconnaissance visit and looked at the sites, and especially when we got to the Wesleyan Chapel, I was like, "I don't know what we're going to do with this, but we're going to do something. I don't care what it looks like. I don't care what it is. This is going to be a national park."

Jennifer Errick: The Wesleyan Chapel was the building where the Women's Rights Convention was held in 1848. The fact that it was still standing was remarkable. But there were some complications.

Judy Hart: The most important building in America for women's history was a laundromat in 1978.

Jennifer Errick: At that time, by Hart's account, the Laundromat was the largest most imposing building in the quaint village of Seneca Falls. It had a wide red and white awning and a large blue sign with white letters that lit up and read "Simply Laundromat." Before its current incarnation, the building had served in turn as a Ford dealership, a grocery store, a furniture store, and an opera house. One previous owner had built 10 apartments above the main floor with an elevator to service them. The space had even been used as a roller rink decades earlier.

This unlikely brick structure was critical to women's history, but looking at it, you sure couldn't tell.

Judy Hart: What I heard over and over and over again, well, it doesn't look like a national park, and it didn't.

Jennifer Errick: Still, Hart was determined to preserve this laundromat as well as other historic homes that no longer retained the same appearance that they had had in 1848. Her determination to create what later became the Women's Rights National Historical Park ultimately opened the door not just to a new park, but to a new kind of park.

Judy Hart: What the Park Service was forced to do was separate a nationally significant story from nationally significant resources because everybody agreed there were not nationally significant resources. That couldn't have been more obvious. And as time went on, it became even more obvious.

Jennifer Errick: Today, it's not hard to think of park sites where the story is more significant than the quality of the architecture. And because people in underserved communities generally make history in more humble surroundings than presidential homes or the mansions of wealthy entrepreneurs, this shift in thinking ultimately allowed the Park Service to be more inclusive in its preservation efforts.

Stonewall National Monument, for example, was created in 2016 to commemorate a bar in New York's Greenwich Village that was instrumental in the fight for LGBTQ rights. A preservation effort like this one wouldn't have been possible without Hart's work in Seneca Falls.

In her book, she writes, "I was not aware in 1978 how radical my suggestion for the Women's Rights National Historical Park was. When asked in 2019 about the significance of the Women's Rights Park, John Reynolds, the retired director of the Park Service’s Pacific West region, offered that it had broke the mold for national parks and opened eyes to new sites highlighting the social history of our country." She adds, "John Reynolds called me subversive, meaning it as a compliment."

Judy Hart: He feels very strongly that the acceptance of the Women's Rights Park, and in particular the name of it, forced the Park Service to change, and the one change that is dramatically obvious. People started calling the park the first “idea park.” What it did was force the Park Service to make an extremely important distinction that they were reluctant to acknowledge, in my opinion.

Jennifer Errick: Hart admits she isn't crazy about the term idea park and prefers to think of it as a values park. Regardless, she knew the message at the heart of her proposal was essential, and she honed her pitch to a very simple question to bring her many champions on board.

Judy Hart: I wouldn't say that very many people said, "Oh, wouldn't this make a fabulous park?" But it was a good story. I would always start out by saying, "Did you know that women in this country couldn't vote until 1920?” And in 1978, nobody knew that. And they'd say, "No." And I said, "Well, there's a park idea that could celebrate that."

[music break]

Jennifer Errick: Seneca Falls is a hamlet in central New York state that serves as a gateway to the scenic Finger Lakes region and is home today to fewer than 7,000 people. The town's biggest claim to fame, aside from the Women's Rights Convention, is the widely held belief that it was the model for the fictional town of Bedford Falls in the 1946 movie “It's a Wonderful Life.” A river with a working canal system borders the town and features a metal bridge with an uncanny resemblance to the one Jimmy Stewart stood on at the climax of the film. The village still features Victorian buildings and shops with brick facades along the town's main street. Visitors can stroll the picturesque waterfront and imagine themselves in the 1940s and the 1840s.

Once Hart began researching and exploring the town and the nearby village of Waterloo, she uncovered nine sites associated with the history of women's equality. Hart also did extensive outreach, speaking with as many people in the community as she could. That's when she met one of the park's biggest heroes.

Judy Hart: One of the people I met was a junior in high school whose name was Hans Kuttner. And the child genius had formed a history club in the Seneca Falls High School and started volunteering to work with the Stanton Foundation, which was trying to raise the money to buy the Stanton House. And someone said, "Well, if you really want to raise money, you've got to get all these properties on the National register." And they said, "Who would like to write the application to do that?" Hans lifted his hand, said, "I'll do it."

Jennifer Errick: Kuttner, who was just 15 years old at the time, put together a proposal for a non-contiguous historic district, an innovative concept at the time that would preserve the buildings without having to manage the hundreds of acres that surrounded and connected them.

Judy Hart: What he wrote had like three paragraphs on the condition of the structures and three pages on how important the story was. He says it's the first one. I haven't been able to track that down and say that, but he says it's the first non-contiguous district. I'm pretty sure it's the first one that had a rundown. Wesleyan Chapel included in it, but I haven't tried to check that either.

Jennifer Errick: The application was approved by the state and then by the Park Service office that manages the National Register, an office Hart notes that is separate from other park service operations and happened to have a whole lot of women working there. Hart had more internal hurdles to face at the agency. For example, the Park Service research center refused to conduct a study on the proposed park and Hart had to produce her own research to decision makers. But ultimately, the power of her idea stuck, and the proposal made it all the way to Congress during that critical two-year expansion period.

Judy Hart: It was my persistence that people now who were involved, that's what they talk about. That was my approach to everything. I didn't harangue anybody. I didn't try and change anybody's mind. Whenever I needed to, I would remind them that women didn't have the right to vote.

Jennifer Errick: She may not have harangued people, but Hart relentlessly built relationships with supporters throughout the Northeast and in Washington, DC. And she did so well before technology made the job of networking easier. She did, however, splurge on one key improvement in her office.

In her book she writes, "It required an army of supporters to move this proposal through both houses of Congress and onto the president in less than 12 months. In 1980, there was no email and no fax. Federal Express began operation in 1973, but the Park Service hadn't approved its use until 1982. There was just the desktop telephone and not even the kind of phones that would allow walking around. I purchased a 25-foot curly extension cord to connect my receiver with the base so that I could pace around my office in Boston during especially long or stressful calls."

Hart's daily conversations pacing in circles around her office ultimately paid off. She drafted the legislation authorizing the park, Congress approved it and President Jimmy Carter signed it into law in December 1980, just weeks before a new administration would come in with a very different approach to managing public lands.

Judy Hart: James Watt got appointed Secretary of Interior and he was announcing that there were parks that weren't nationally significant. We had to get rid of them because we couldn't afford them all. And I thought, the title of my park, I wonder how that sits with James Watt.

We didn't own any property there. We had no ability because the second thing he announced was no acquisition. There would be no expansion of the parks or the park service. So, we didn't own anything. We couldn't own anything. We didn't have anybody out there. We had such a place that everybody said, "This doesn't look like a National Park."

Jennifer Errick: Hart was named founding superintendent, but she had to kick off her grand plans with virtually no funding. She kept her official job with the Boston office and began managing the new park in the other duties as assigned category of her job.

Judy Hart: The original request for funding for the first year was $400,000, which had been typical for all the parks that got created at that era. And after the change administration, the first year's budget was $5,000, which I used that first year to go out there once a month.

Jennifer Errick: Because Hart owned an idea but no property, she worried that the new administration could abolish the park just as quickly as it had been established. So, taking advantage of a personal connection, she enlisted another unlikely hero to bring star power to the grand opening of the park.

Judy Hart: I needed to make a statement so loud and so strong that nobody would touch it, and Alan Alda did that for us.

Jennifer Errick: Alan Alda, for those who might not remember, was the star of one of the longest running and most popular television shows in the 1970s and '80s called M*A*S*H, a dramatic comedy about a medical team stationed overseas during the Korean War. Having Alan Alda attend the ribbon cutting for the new park would be sort of like having Peter Dinklage or Jason Momoa at your housewarming party during the height of Game of Thrones — a power move that's sure to draw a crowd and impress all of your friends.

In her book, Hart recalls, "I wanted an opening event that would reverberate all the way to the halls of the Interior Department headquarters in Washington. I wanted James Watt to read about the opening ceremony in his morning newspaper."

Judy Hart: One of the highlights was two and a half hours talking to Alan Alda in his office, and he just kept asking questions, what was my dream, how are you going to get there? And he started out by saying, "There's no way I'm coming up to Seneca Falls. I don't do that." Two weeks later, he called back and said, "Yeah, I'll be there. I'll cut the ribbon."

Jennifer Errick: The logistics of planning the opening were a challenge. At one point, an enthusiastic fan even threw herself at Alda while he was walking around town with Hart, sending her into a panic. But the fan let go, the moment passed and the official program was a success. The Park Service and local partners arranged a series of events throughout the weekend to follow the ribbon cutting, including a reenactment of the 1848 convention, a conference with presentations by noted historians, a live band with dancing, and a fireworks show over the canal. People came from miles around to celebrate the new park. And although the staff were just getting started and already exhausted, the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

There would be new challenges ahead to find creative ways to acquire and restore the buildings that formed the Hart of the park to do serious detective work to understand, for example, just what a laundromat might've looked like before 130 years of intrusive renovations. And the campaign to acquire the property required both donations and congressional funding to put each building on the map, but the park continued to stand and to grow. Hart and her team no longer worried that men in Washington would question the legitimacy of their cause or take their dream away from them.

[music break]

Judy Hart: The park started in a surprising way, but it actually got created and changed the Park Service along the way. And one of the things that I'm very fond of, I thoroughly enjoyed working with the people that were close to me. There was quite a band of people in the community as well as Park Service and Congress, but especially in the community.

Jennifer Errick: After more than a decade of advocating for and then managing the Women's Rights National Historical Park, Hart felt the site was in good hands and she moved to a new legislative position that allowed her to contribute to the creation of more new parks. Notably, she went on to become the founding superintendent of Rosie the Riveter, World War II Homefront National Historical Park in California, another park whose story was more significant than its structures.

Judy Hart: My specialty turned out to be helping people tell their untold stories.

Jennifer Errick: Hart's main motivation in writing a book about her experiences was to inspire other people who have a burning passion like she did to follow that passion. When I asked her what advice she most wanted to give others, she didn't hesitate.

Judy Hart: That they will take their thought, turn it into a dream, believe in it, turn it into a vision, and make it happen.

Jennifer Errick: As part of the promotion for her new book, Hart returned to Seneca Falls last October and participated in a panel discussion with nine of the people who were key in establishing the park, including child prodigy Hans Kuttner, now in his 60s. During the program, the group shared some of their favorite memories. And the conversations served as a meaningful reminder of why Hart had persisted as long as she had to make her dream a reality.

Judy Hart: Well, most of us hadn't seen each other in decades. I'd been in touch with most people because I'd interviewed them all for the book. But by the time the park was getting off the ground, I'm just going to flat out say we loved each other. We had so much fun. We had a shared mission, we had a shared vision. People worked so hard for it, but it was also fun. And there were lots of good times along the way. And to have that reunion celebrating the release of the book about it was the highlight of my life.

[end theme]

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Episode 27, Creating the Country’s First ‘Idea Park,’ was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher and Bev Stanton.

Special thanks to NPCA Mid-Atlantic Senior Program Director Pam Goddard.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer.

Learn more about Judy Hart’s new book, “A National Park for Women’s Rights,” at

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.

And we’re proud of it, too.

You can join the fight to preserve our national parks and their history. Learn more and join us at

Judy Hart: You know, somebody said, I see what you have in your eyes, and I want it. That doesn't come through on e-mail.