Isobel Lamont Stewart Bryan (20 August 1847–11 September 1910), historic preservationist and civic leader, was born in Richmond, the daughter of John Stewart and Mary Amanda Williamson Stewart. Her father, a native of Scotland, immigrated as a youth to Virginia and became a wealthy tobacco merchant. Brook Hill, their Henrico County home, had been owned by her mother's family since 1714. Stewart's parents were educated and maintained a large library. Known to her family as Belle, she may have attended the Brook Schoolhouse across the road from Brook Hill when it was open, but her education primarily occurred at home through the tutoring of a Scottish governess. Stewart was an avid reader, and a grandson described her as the most intellectual member of her family. Although not musical, she learned to recite hymns, and she regularly attended Emmanuel Episcopal Church after her father built it across from the family residence. In 1855 Stewart traveled with her family to Europe to visit Scottish kinsmen. She spent the years 1865–1866 in Edinburgh, where she studied French and calisthenics. During another trip in 1870 she traveled to Dresden, Venice, and other European cities.
During the Civil War Confederate soldiers regularly camped on the Brook Hill property, where Stewart's father established a hospital to tend to the ill and wounded. Robert Edward Lee visited the Stewart home, and the girl developed a profound admiration for the Confederate leader. These adolescent experiences greatly influenced her later.
Even as a young woman, Belle Stewart gained an enviable reputation for intelligence and wit. On 1 February 1871 she married Joseph Bryan (1845–1908), a young lawyer and Confederate veteran. After their marriage, Bryan and her husband resided at Brook Hill. Between 1871 and 1882 she gave birth to six sons, five of whom lived to adulthood, including John Stewart Bryan who later became a newspaper publisher and college president. The family moved in 1885 to their newly built home, Laburnum, near Brook Hill.
About this time Bryan began developing a larger public role for herself. In 1887 she helped to found the Richmond Woman's Christian Association. The new organization concerned itself first with providing appropriate housing for women coming to the city to work in factories and shops. Services for the association's residents included medical care, a library, sewing classes, educational entertainments, and prayer groups, all supervised by a matron and board of managers.
For a decade starting in 1889, Bryan served as president of the association, which became part of the national Young Woman's Christian Association in 1906. After developing residences for unmarried working women, the association established a day nursery and kindergarten to care for the children of married working women. Voluntary contributions and a small grant from the Richmond city council enabled the association to employ a qualified teacher to administer the kindergarten. Shortly after it opened in 1890, the entire program was renamed the Belle Bryan Day Nursery. Costs often exceeded available funds, and Bryan regularly solicited contributions from churchwomen's groups and others to meet the budget.
Examples of women's activism and other social reform efforts spurred Bryan and other advocates of the YWCA in their concern for wage-earning women. Perhaps even more important were the moral precepts that moved these women organizers to establish social ministries. Bryan herself had long been active in her church and felt called to make the gospel message a social reality through her actions. Her remarkable talents as an organizer and motivator of others contributed to the success of her projects.
Confederate Memorial Literary Society
In 1890 Bryan became president of the Ladies' Hollywood Memorial Association, which cared for the graves of Confederate soldiers in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery. She served the organization well. In addition to arranging for the Hollywood Cemetery Company to transfer to the association ownership of the section occupied by the graves of Confederate soldiers, Bryan led the effort to refurbish the mansion in which President Jefferson Davis had lived during the Civil War. The so-called White House of the Confederacy had become a school after the war, but the city decided to close it in 1889 and offered the building to Bryan's group. To accept, the association had to obtain a state charter under the new name of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society, with Bryan as its first president.
In 1893 the society held a memorial bazaar that raised $31,300 to renovate and fireproof the White House of the Confederacy, redesignated the Confederate Museum and after 1970 the Museum of the Confederacy. The museum opened on 22 February 1896. Three years later the society elected Bryan president of the museum for life. She rallied members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in each southern state to adopt a room in the museum and decorate it as a shrine for that state's Confederate heroes. Joseph Bryan supported his wife's work and served on the Confederate Memorial Literary Society's advisory board. In the years before World War I, the Confederate Museum housed a library and an archival collection for historical research and hosted about 7,000 visitors yearly.
In 1890 Bryan also became president of the new Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (later Preservation Virginia), a position that she held until her death. The APVA's mission was to raise funds for the purchase and restoration of Virginia historical sites and to correct what elite Virginians perceived as misinterpretations of Virginia's glorious colonial past by historians from New England. The APVA's leaders hosted public events to raise funds, but they also used contacts through family and friends to win government support for their various projects. Under Bryan's leadership, the APVA secured Jamestown Island with a protective seawall, preserved the old Jamestown church, erected a statue of Captain John Smith (which Belle Bryan financed as a memorial to Joseph Bryan, who had died on 20 November 1908), and placed a cross at the falls of the James River. Bryan also aided the APVA's successful effort to save Mary Ball Washington's house in Fredericksburg.
Throughout her public career, Bryan suffered from periods of nervous exhaustion, a condition then called neurasthenia, but those who knew her remembered her boundless energy and engaging personality, not her infirmities. In her later years glaucoma diminished her eyesight. Isobel Lamont Stewart Bryan died in Richmond on 11 September 1910 after a short illness and was buried in the cemetery at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Henrico County.
In 1949 the Bryan family donated their Laburnum estate to Richmond Memorial Hospital. Additional acreage went to the city of Richmond for creation of Joseph Bryan Park. The Belle Bryan Day Nursery formally closed in 1972 with its sale to the Medical College of Virginia. Proceeds went to the Belle Bryan Day Nursery Foundation, which grants funds to charities that assist needy families with young children.
John Stewart Bryan, Joseph Bryan: His Times, His Family, His Friends (1935), 165–175; correspondence in Bryan Family Papers, Accession 24882, Library of Virginia, and in Bryan Family Papers, Stewart Family Papers, Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities Papers, and numerous other collections, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond (VMHC); interview with grandson David Tennant Bryan; Mrs. Joseph [Isobel Lamont Stewart] Bryan, "The Woman's Christian Association, Richmond, Virginia," International Messenger 2 (1896): 136–137; Mrs. Ralph R. [Naomi C.] Chappell and Mrs. J. W. S. [Ellen V.] Gilchrist, "A History of the Y.W.C.A. of Richmond, Virginia, 1887–1937" (1937 typescript), VMHC; Virginia Capital Bicentennial Commission, "A Short History of the Belle Bryan Day Nursery," Sketches of Societies and Institutions, Together with Descriptions of Phases of Social, Political, and Economic Development in Richmond, Virginia (1937), pt. 8; Betsy Brinson, "'Helping Others to Help Themselves': Social Advocacy and Wage-Earning Women in Richmond, Virginia, 1910–1932" (Ph.D. diss., Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities, 1984), 84–87; James M. Lindgren, Preserving the Old Dominion: Historic Preservation and Virginia Traditionalism (1993), 50–51, 63, 72–73, 91, 93, 125, 130, 137 (portrait), 175; Malinda W. Collier et al., White House of the Confederacy: An Illustrated History (1993), 23–26 (portraits); obituaries in Richmond News Leader, 12 Sept. 1910, and Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12 Sept. 1910.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Betsy Brinson.
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