Corley, Peggy (1931-2019)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 3/03/2020
  • Essay 20984
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Peggy Corley was a leading figure in historic preservation in Washington. She was born in Seattle on April 5, 1931, attended Lincoln High School in the Wallingford neighborhood, graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla with a degree in history, and earned a master's degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Washington. In 1955, she was the first curator hired by the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle, a position she held for seven years. In 1973, she was appointed the first chairperson of Seattle's newly created Landmarks Preservation Board, where she helped craft the city's approach to historic preservation. During her tenure, the city designated nearly 100 historic properties and three landmark districts. Corley served on the State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Federal Historic Sites Survey, and State Heritage Council, among other posts, and received the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the highest recognition given by the state of Washington for civic contributions. She died on May 11, 2019.

Devoted to Education and Public Service

Margaret "Peggy" Ayr Copeland was born in Seattle on April 5, 1931, to Paul W. Copeland and Mary Penrose. The younger of two daughters, she enjoyed camping, alpine skiing, water activities, and reading, and spent many summers with her family exploring an area in Pierce County later called Penrose Point State Park, named for her grandfather. She graduated from Seattle's Lincoln High School in 1948 with two scholarships and attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, where she earned a degree in history in 1952. She held office in several student groups, including Associated Women Students and the YWCA, and was a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. 

Her family history on both sides is steeped in public service and education. Her paternal grandfather Harry Lewis Copeland (1869-1936) was an architect who moved to Washington from New York in 1894 to supervise the building of the Washington State Capitol in Olympia. After the project stalled, he returned to New York to establish his own firm and then returned to Olympia in 1912. Three years later, he moved to Walla Walla, where he supervised construction of the county courthouse. In 1923, he moved to Longview to start an architecture firm; for a time he was president of the Longview chamber of commerce. 

Peggy's father Paul W. Copeland (1899-1971) served in the U.S. Navy during World War I and then received a bachelor's degree from Whitman College and a master's degree in history from the University of Washington. He taught at the American University of Beirut and Aleppo College in Syria for four years on a grant from the U.S. State Department. He also taught history for 20 years at Franklin, Queen Anne, and Ballard high schools in Seattle. Paul Copeland was an author of three books and wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and several architecture publications.

Her maternal grandfather, Stephen B. L. Penrose (1864-1947), was the third president of Whitman College, serving in that position  from 1894 to 1934. Born into a well-to-do family in Philadelphia and educated at Williams College and Yale University, Penrose was an ordained Congregational minister who traveled initially to Washington as a missionary. A prominent church and educational leader in the Northwest, he believed strongly in outdoor recreation and spent many summer vacations camping and hiking with his family. His wife, Mary Penrose, was national president of the YWCA board.

Peggy's mother Mary ("Maysie") Penrose Copeland (1898-1996) grew up on the Whitman campus. She was a Greek major at Whitman (class of 1918) and taught there for three years. In 1924, she received a master's degree in English from the University of Minnesota. After raising daughters Peggy and Frances (1929-2018), she taught at Roosevelt and Cleveland high schools in Seattle. She was an avid supporter of the arts, including the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Art Museum. Peggy's sister Frances was a librarian, author, and activist.

Museums and Marriage

After her 1952 graduation from Whitman, Peggy Copeland moved to Spokane and began work at the Grace Campbell Museum. Built in 1898 for mining magnate Amasa B. Campbell (1845–1912) and his wife Grace, the historic home was donated in 1925 to local art and historical societies by their daughter Helen. A showcase of the opulence of the mining-baron era, the mansion was a standalone facility until 1960, when it became an adjunct to the new Cheney Cowles Museum built next door.

She subsequently moved back to Seattle, where she was hired in 1955 as the first professional staff member of the Museum of History & Industry, a position she held until 1962. (The museum had opened its doors three years earlier with artifacts, photographs, and documents donated by the Seattle Historical Society.) While at MOHAI, she earned an M.A. in 1956 from the University of Washington in cultural anthropology with a focus on Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. On August 28, 1959, she married George W. Corley in a Friday afternoon ceremony held at her aunt's house. George Corley was also a graduate of Whitman (class of 1955), where he was on the ski team. He began his career as a mortgage banker and later specialized in property management.

During her seven years at MOHAI, Peggy Corley oversaw the planning and installation of many exhibitions, including a one-man photography show for The Seattle Times photographer Josef Scaylea, an exhibition on early area businesses, and a show celebrating the 50th anniversary of the arctic exploration ship Roosevelt. She was known for her enthusiasm, hard work, and good nature. "Mrs. Margaret Corley is curator at the Museum of History and Industry, but that is not what she always is called. She answers to a variety of names, such as 'keeper of the wedding dresses,' 'the lady in charge of old things' and, more recently, 'Mrs. Claus.' This last name has been given her by the museum staff because of the variety of artifacts and costumes that Seattleites gave her --- for the museum -- during December" ("Mrs. Corley of Museum ..."). She continued as curator at MOHAI until 1962 before leaving to raise her family: daughter Sarah and sons William and Steve.

Corley maintained a lifelong affiliation with MOHAI, serving as a museum trustee for 31 years (1963-1993). She was a stalwart volunteer who put in many hours at the museum over the decades. "Peggy still came to the museum every Wednesday of every week, year in and year out, to volunteer -- which really meant to gently guide us to a better understanding of our museum, our city and the stories we are entrusted to share" (A Celebration of Peggy Corley). 

Historic Preservation Pioneer

Corley was associated with many firsts in the field of historic preservation in Seattle, where her professionalism, commitment to the public process, and talent for negotiation set her apart. Beginning in the late 1960s, she was appointed to a number of key preservation committees and boards by Seattle mayors and Washington governors. Some of these appointments included: King County liaison to the Federal Historic Sites Survey (1968–1973), State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (1973–1977), first chair of the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board (1973-1979), member of the State Heritage Council (1984–1989), and Friends of the Georgetown Steam Plant (1985-1988). 

When Seattle created the Landmarks Preservation Board in 1973, Corley became its first chairperson. In that position, she played a major role in crafting the city's Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which set a framework for evaluating the historic significance of properties and districts. She was also involved when the ordinance was revised in 1977. Her efforts helped guide the city's approach to historic preservation where "through the process of designating and protecting new and existing districts and landmarks ... [the Historic Preservation Program works] with community members to promote the aesthetic, cultural, and economic strength of Seattle" (Historic Preservation Program website).

At its first meeting on October 3, 1973, the board spent time formulating its mission: "[To] designate structures and areas in the city having historical, cultural, architectural, engineering or geographic importance, and ... authority to provide enforcement and violation penalties when such designated areas are endangered" ("Landmarks Board Holds ..."). Nine of its 12 members were appointed by the mayor. In addition to Corley, architects Fred Bassetti (1917-2013) and Norman Johnston (1918-2015), planner Ilze Jones, and engineer Art Andersen were among the inaugural members. 

Corley brought a strong work ethic, collaborative spirit, and belief in the public process to bear on her work. Karen Gordon, Seattle's historic preservation officer for more than 30 years, described Corley's approach: "Peggy just hunkered down and got things done. She did not need nor did she seek out the spotlight, but she was always there, working hard in the background. Thanks to her, we have a regulatory framework that will be with us for decades. She had the foresight and the wisdom back then to recognize the value of historic preservation" (Karen Gordon interview).

Fort Lawton Historic District

There are many benefits to preserving historic structures: economic development, civic identity, aesthetic values, tourism, education, and environmental sustainability. Although the city's stated focus was to manage change, not restrict it, preservationists were often pitted against property owners and developers. Such was the case with the Fort Lawton Historic District. Created in 1899 along the forested bluffs of Magnolia, Fort Lawton was Seattle's only permanent U.S. Army garrison post. But it was perhaps better known for "events other than military accomplishments: a 1944 soldier raid on Italian prisoner camp, a court martial with injustices corrected more than 60 years later, a 1970 Indian demonstration and occupation, and struggles to convert the fort into Discovery Park" ("Fort Lawton to Discovery Park"). 

It was the latter effort, the creation of Discovery Park, that involved Corley and the Landmarks Preservation Board. In 1971, the federal government offered nearly 423 surplus acres at Fort Lawton to the City of Seattle to establish Discovery Park. In 1975, additional land was declared surplus; this time, it included historic homes and buildings surrounding the fort's former parade grounds. That's when things got complicated.

"Seattle preservationists have been fighting to retain the buildings while the Parks Department has been planning to demolish up to two dozen structures on the surplus land to make more room for Discovery Park ... Mayor Charles Royer had proposed earlier that about 11 of the buildings be retained. The city Landmarks Preservation and Parks Boards have been trying to work out a compromise over the buildings for about three years ... Peggy Corley, Landmarks Board chairperson, said she is happy there finally is a decision so they can get on with acquisition ... 'Compromise, naturally, doesn't satisfy everyone, but we are willing to try to work the problems specifically as they develop,' she said" ("Fort Lawton District ...").   

When two buildings (deemed non-historic) were demolished, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, a group dedicated to protecting the state's historic treasures, sued to delay demolition. By a 5-to-4 margin, the Seattle City Council voted to save the buildings, agreeing to maintain the exteriors but not the interiors. In 1988, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board accepted the Fort Lawton Historic District as a Seattle landmark.   

Throughout the process, Corley was adamant that the voice of everyday citizens be heard and valued. When the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the state's preservation office requested that they be consulted regarding the future of the Fort Lawton buildings, Corley pushed back, insisting in a letter that "the citizenry of Seattle have taken a long and active role. It is our intention that this citizen-participation process continue and that every consideration possible be given to the future of the property, particularly these historic structures" ("Used Homes Selling ...").

Peggy Corley Day

During her years on the Landmarks Preservation Board, Corley and her colleagues designated nearly 100 historic properties and three landmark districts. (As of 2019, Seattle had approved more than 450 historic properties and landmarks and eight districts.) Some of the landmarks that received historic status during her tenure were the Stimson Green Mansion, a 1901 English Tudor-style mansion on First Hill; the steamship Virginia V, the last operational example of the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet; both the Montlake and Fremont bridges; and the Georgetown Steam Plant, built in 1906 to provide electricity to the city of Seattle, particularly its streetcars.  

Concurrent with her work on the Landmarks Preservation Board, Corley served on the State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation from 1973 to 1977, appointed by Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925).

To recognize her many achievements, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) designated February 5, 1981, as Peggy Corley Day. In the proclamation, the mayor acknowledged that Corley "contributed not only an impressive grasp of history, but also a strong commitment to the public process, a willingness to work long and hard with government and community groups, and a flair for bringing together people and ideas" ("Mayor Proclaims ...").

In 1984, Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) appointed Corley to the State Heritage Council, where she served until 1989, helping redefine the role and scope of the state's history museums.

'A Stronger and Better City'

Under her leadership, the Landmarks Preservation Board became a national model, and Corley's diligence in uncovering the historic character of a building, neighborhood, or district could be felt decades later. At her 2019 memorial service, MOHAI Executive Director Leonard Garfield reminisced about Corley's impact: "Consider this: When the city was first discovering that maybe, just maybe, the historic character of this very special place was worth saving, Peggy led the way. Straightforward, clear-sighted and collaborative ... We are a stronger and better city because of [her] work" (A Celebration of Peggy Corley).

Through her career, Corley received many awards and honors, including the Jefferson Award for Public Service in 1979, the highest recognition given by Washington state for civic contributions. She was the recipient of two awards from Historic Seattle: the Victor Steinbrueck Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999 and the Living Landmark Award in 2015. When MOHAI inaugurated its own awards program, called the History Makers Award, Corley won that as well (1996).

Corley remained connected to Whitman College, helping raise funds for her alma mater and serving on its board of overseers for 15 years. She also collected oral histories for the college archives. Her work as a preservationist was put to good use in 1974 when she helped deliver the documentation needed to place the college's Memorial Building, which dates back to 1899, on the National Register of Historic Places. For this and other efforts at Whitman, she received the school's Gordon Scribner Award for Distinguished Service in 2014.

Corley was a longstanding member of the Women's University Club in Seattle, where she took art classes, and she sang in the Soul Choir at Plymouth Congregational Church, where she was a long-time member of the congregation. She died May 11, 2019, survived by her husband of nearly 60 years, three children, and four grandchildren.


"Mrs. Corley of Museum Gets Variety of 'Old Things,' The Seattle Times, January 1, 1961, p. S-2; "Landmarks Board Holds First Meeting," Ibid., October 5, 1973, p. A-4; Polly Lane, "Fort Lawton District Now Listed in National Historic-places Registry," Ibid., August 15, 1978, p. A-15; Polly Lane, "Used Homes Selling at Higher Prices Than New?" Ibid., August 27, 1978, p. M-1; Jim Kershner, "Spokane Museum to Close Historic Mansion After Funding Is Cut," Ibid., November 7, 2008 (; Peggy Corley, obituary (paid notice), Ibid., May 17, 2019; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Stephen B. L. Penrose Arrives in Walla Walla on October 2, 1894, as the Third President of Whitman College" (by Michael J. Paulius Jr; "Fort Lawton to Discovery Park" (by Duane Colt Denfeld); "Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI)" (by Alan J. Stein); "Frances Penrose Owen (1900-2002)" by David Wilma, (accessed January 22, 2020); "Mayor Proclaims Peggy Corley Day," Historic Seattle Newsletter, April 1981 (; Bill Richards, "Seattle Loves Those Landmarks," Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1991 (; A Celebration of Peggy Corley, remarks given by Leonard Garfield during Peggy Corley's memorial service, June 27, 2019, document in collection of Rita Cipalla; Rita Cipalla interview with Karen Gordon, January 30, 2020, transcript in possession of Rita Cipalla; Historic Preservation, City of Seattle, website accessed February 6, 2020 (

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