On the night of Jan. 28, 1922, a blizzard piled two feet of snow on the old Knickerbocker Theater on Columbia Road in the District. At 9:10 p.m., the theater roof collaspsed, 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 is once again 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 to 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 of the USA 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 filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court in an effort to block the sale.
Under the terms of the will, if the Girl Scouts chose to abandon Rockwood or its "character building purposes," the land was to go to the Esther Chapter of Eastern Star. In a December 1979 letter to Local councils, Girl Scouts 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.
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 will.
Helen Zelov has emerged as a key witness in a hearing set for May 19 to determine whether 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 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 so 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 23.8 million members.
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 staff of the national headquarters in New York City and the 60-member 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 was one of several area Scouts who, shortly after the sale was announced, helped form 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.
To hold costs, Friends of Rockwood volunteered their time to do much of the legal research for the lawsuit. Still, legal fees so far have totaled nearly $29,000, said Anna G. Foultz, of Springfield, Va., a Friends' board member. Foultz said the group has raised about $15,000 for the fees, and last weekend, sponsored a benefit concert that netted about $100. t
For Friends of Rockwood, the proposed sale represents the loss of a treasured national 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 estimate 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 150,000-acre primitive camping area in Wyoming, and the Juliette Gordon Low Girl Scout Center, the founderhs home in Savannah, Ga.
The National Girl Scout leadership plans to spend aobut $10 million to add a year-round training and conference cetner at Macy, according to public relations specialist Ely List.
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 convention 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 on 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 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 because it's really not our business affair," says council President Barbara Lehamann.
With more than 44,000 members 60 full-time employes and an annual operating budget of about $2 million, the Nation's Capital council is the third largest in the country.
Rather than join the Rockwood battle, the 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."