On the night of Jan. 28, 1922, a blizzard piled two feet of snow on the old Knickerbocker Theater on Columbia Road. At 9:10 p.m., the theater roof collapsed, killing 107 people and injuring another 133. Eleven of those injured owed their lives to Helen Zelov, a Girl Scout leader. As she lay beneath the rubble, Zelov persistently called out to rescuers, guiding them to others trapped in the theater.
Now, 59 years after the Knickerbocker disaster, Helen Zelov once again is being asked to help with a rescue mission -- but this time, it is to save a 67-acre estate near Great Falls, known as Rockwood, from developers.
For nearly 45 years, Rockwood has been the property of the Girl Scouts of the USA, willed to the Scouts in 1936. According to a group of local Scouts, the heroism of Helen Zelov so inspired Washington socialite Carolyn B. Caughey that she donated the land in honor of Zelov.
In 1978, the Girl Scouts announced its intention to sell the estate for $4.2 million to a local developer, Berger-Berman Builders Inc. of Rockville, which plans to subdivide the land and build $100,000-plus homes and condominiums.
Arguing that the sale violates the intent of Caughey's will, nine area Girl Scouts and adult leaders, including several from Northern Virginia, filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court in an effort to block the sale.
Helen Zelov has emerged as a key witness in a hearing set for May 19 to determine if Rockwood will remain a pristine retreat for Scouts or become another luxury home development in wealthy Montgomery County.
"She (Caughey) would feel like turning over in her grave if, she knew it would be developed," said Zelov, who is now in her 80s, from her home in Villanova, Pa. "She loved every tree and every leaf. She felt it would give a feeling of independence and love of outdoors to the Girl Scouts."
But scouting isn't simple in 1981. Uniforms by Halston have replaced olive green skirts; Scouts are venturing into areas such as drug abuse seminars and career counseling instead of tramping through woods or singing around campfires.
Scouting has grown from a small club for young girls founded in 1912 to a multi-layered organization with more than 2.8 million members, run at the local level by adult leaders, administered by professional staff members at 337 local councils and coordinated by more than 525 workers at national headquarters in New York City and at service centers in Dallas, Chicago and New York. Setting policy for the group is a 60-member board of directors, made up mostly of adult volunteers.
Although many Scouts agree that the diversification and centralization have allowed Scouting to draw on a wealth of resources, others say it has had some drawbacks. The most crucial, according to some longtime Scouts, is a feeling by some that the national staff and board of directors tend to be removed from the needs of local groups.
"Any organization that has diversified its governing body should be very intent on communicating with its membership," said Jean Moore, a Scout for 44 years and treasurer of the group opposing the Rockwood sale. "This has been lacking."
Moore and other local Scouts consider the dispute over Rockwood a symptom of this lack of communication.
Moore was one of several area Scouts who, shortly after the sale was announced, helped formed a group known as Rescue Rockwood. Last year, the group incorporated as Friends of Rockwood, with a 15-member board of directors and an estimated 500 members, including nearly 250 from the Washington area.
For Friends of Rockwood, the proposed sale represents the loss of a treasured national center that has hosted nearly 15,000 Girl Scouts a year from throughout the world.
For the national board, the sale represents the chance to get rid of a property that is draining the financial resources of an organization struggling to cope with membership losses, rising budgets and falling income.
Since a membership peak of nearly 4 million in 1970, Scouting has lost 1.2 million members and 140,000 volunteer leaders.
Rockwood, which national Scouting officials say cost about $150,000 in maintenance and legal fees in 1979, is part of a $6.3 million real estate portfolio that includes Camp Edith Macy, a 400-acre retreat in upstate New York used primarily as a training and conference center for girls and adults; National Center West, a 15,000-acre primitive camping area in Wyoming, and the Juliette Gordon Low Girl Scout Center, the founder's home in Savannah, Ga.
Although Scout officials in New York refuse to discuss the Rockwood issue because of the pending lawsuit, a letter in December 1979 from national President Jane C. Freeman to council presidents expressed the national position:
"Recent (national) boards, in particular, have been faced with problems relating to double-digit inflation, coupled with deficits in income," Freeman wrote. Based on an "economic conclusion," the national board decided to sell Rockwood, and instead maintain and upgrade Edith Macy as its East Coast center.
The local group for this area, Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital which covers Northern Virginia, suburban Maryland and the District, has tried to stay out of the Rockwood controversy.
"Our council has no position on the sale of Rockwood becuase it's really not our business affair," says council President Barbara Lehmann.
With more than 44,000 members, 60 full-time employes and an annula operating budget of about $2 million, the Nation's Capital council is the third largest in the nation. Although local Scout officials describe the council's financial position as sound, the local group also faced some of the same membership and volunteer losses that Scouting has nationwide.
Last year, the council counted 44,442 girls and 11,623 adult volunteers among its memebers. That is a sharp drop from 1970, when the council had 55,760 girls and 14,000 adult volunteers.
Sonia Snyder, director of management for the local council, attributes the decline to a corresponding decrease in the number of youngsters in this area. But council President Lehmann believes it has more to do with changes in society.
"There are a lot of single-parent families and pressures for women to go back to work, both societal and financial ones," she said. "There isn't the time there was in the past.One of the reasons for the recently declining membership . . . is sometimes there aren't enough (volunteer) leaders for the troups."
Although Lehmann and other local Scouts believe the declining trend has bottomed out, the council, in a statement issued to members earlier this year, conceded that Scouting must be ready to adapt to changes in the 1980s and 1990s.
"As the coucil looks toward the end of this century, it is clear that it needs are changing and growing," the statement says. "Increased urbanization and recruitment efforts at the heretofore neglected urban child are resulting in a more urban-centered membership than in the past." (The local council has approximately 20,000 members in Northern Virginia, 17,000 in Maryland and 5,000 in the District.)
Rather than join the Rockwood battle, the council is launching a major fund drive to buy or build a new center to replace the offices it now rents at 2233 Wisconsin Ave. The project would be a msaaive undertaking -- with offices, an auditorium, an indoor swimming pool, a library, hostel accommodations, kitchen and arboretum -- and the council already is considering property near Union Station on Capitol Hill. The center is expected to cost about $4 million, excluding the cost of the land, said James Hunter, chairman of the council's property committee.
In addition to private donations, Lehmann said the girls themselves would help pay for the center through annual cookie sales. This year, the price of cookies was raised from $2 to $2.50 a box, with additional 50 cents earmarked for the new center.
At the national level, Girl Scouts plan to spend about $10 million to add a year-round training and conference center at Camp Edith, according to public relations specialist Ely List. The project reflects the decision by the national board to abandon Rockwood and to develop Macy as its East Coast Center.
Friends of Rockwood say the plans fly in the face of wishes of local groups throughout the country, and point to a resolution approved by delegates to the Girl Scout national cenvention in 1978, shortly after the national board announced the sale of Rockwood. At the convention, delegates voted 901 to 738 to ask the national board to cease negotiations of Rockwood and reconsider the sale. Of the 296 delegates from this area, 294 supported the resolution and two abstained, according to local leaders.
However, the national board made no move to revoke the contract, and in 1979, the nine Washington area Girl Scouts filed their suit to block the sale.
The heart of the dispute is Carolyn Caughey's will. Under the terms of the will, of the Girl Scouts chose to abandon Rockwood or its "character building purposes," the land was to go the the Esther Chapter of Eastern Star. In her December 1979 letter to local councils, national President Freeman said the national board had paid the Eastern Star group $150,000 to waive its rights to the land. Now, the national board contends it has sole rights over disposition of the property.
The Friends of Rockwood and the nine Scouts trying to block the sale dispute that claim, contending that sale of the property would violate the intent of the will to keep it "as a character building center."
At the preliminary hearing on the issue last spring, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge John Mitchell directed both sides to seek evidence supporting their divergent views of the Caughey will.
To hold down costs, Friends of Rockwood volunteered their time to do much of the legal research. Still, legal fees so far have totaled nearly $29,000, said Anna G. Foultz, of Springfield, a Friends' board member. Foultz said the group has raised about $15,000 for the fees, and last weekend, the group sponsored a benefit concert where they netted about $100.
Despite the costs, Friends of Rockwood clearly believe in their cause, and they particularly and angered over what they perceive as the insensitiveness of national leaders.
"Girl Scouts of the USA is not in the hands of its members," Foultz said in a letter to severals U.S. senators, "but is controlled by a self-perpetuating board of directors and a handful of professional staff members."
Local council members and national Scouting officials dispute that contention.
"I think the national board and staff are as interested in the girls having a positive experience as the local council president," said Marilyn Houser, executive director of the local council.
Added national staff member List: "I think we have to assume that the national council of elected delegates is democratic. I think whatever local group is sore over whatever local issue tends to feel that the national council is unresponsive."
Meanwhile, Rockwood lies in limbo. For the last three years, no Scouts have pitched tents under the tall trees nor come to stay in the small cottages while they visit Washington.
And while Girl Scout headquarters referred questions to their attorney, Rockwood's caretaker of 16 years offered a few comments.
"The only ones losing (by the sale) are the Girl Scouts themselves," said Brice Nash, 50. "I think the Girl Scouts really don't have any say at all.
"I go along with Mrs. Caughey's will. She wanted it for the betterment of the children."