Rest is not part of the exciting plans on the drawing board for Rest Cottage at 1728-30 Chicago Ave., the landmark home of long-time temperance and suffrage leader Frances E. Willard (1839-98). She served as the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union president from 1871 until her death, when her house was willed to the National WCTU (NWCTU).
Now the NWCTU and the Frances Willard Historical Association (FWHA) are merging into a single non-profit entity: the Center for Women’s History and Leadership. In mid-August, after three years of negotiation, the merger was announced by Glen Madeja, the FWHA executive director, and Sarah Ward, National WCTU president. The reincorporation process will soon be finalized, they say.
The merger also includes transferring property. Come November, the National WCTU will transfer to the Center ownership of the land and five buildings that make up Evanston’s WCTU Historic District, created in 2010. The district includes the Frances Willard Museum at Rest Cottage, two neighboring houses of the same vintage at 1724 and 1732 Chicago Ave., the NWCTU Headquarters Building behind Rest Cottage, and a garage. The three houses constitute the last remnant of early Evanston, already called Old Timers’ Row back in the 1880s.
“The merger is the best thing we could ever have hoped for,” Sarah Ward said. She was the National WCTU president from 1996 to 2006 and returned to the presidency in 2014. In between, she worked as head of the Indiana state WCTU. Those in-between years, she said, helped “give me a different perspective.” In particular, she became more aware of the shrinking NWCTU membership, down to 1,000 today compared to 250,000 in 1961. “And most of the members are far along in age,” she said. “It was obvious to me we had to be realistic and make plans for the future, for when we are not here.”
Both Mr. Madeja and Ms. Ward agreed that creating the Center for Women’s History and Leadership as an umbrella non-profit for both the FWHA and NWCTU will make an orderly transition possible should the National WCTU disband.
For now, the Center will allow the FWHA and the NWCTU to continue to operate autonomously. The NWCTU will carry on with its temperance programs and Signal Press publishing enterprise while the FWHA will continue to run the Frances Willard House Museum and the Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives.
The new Center, Mr. Madeja said, “will safeguard the future of the property, ensure the legacy of the WCTU and provide for proper stewardship of the Willard House Museum and the WCTU Archives so they remain open to the public and available to researchers long into the future.”
In addition, he said, the Center will have an expanded mission that goes beyond temperance and Frances Willard, a mission “to honor the leadership of women of the past to inform the present and inspire leaders of the future.”
Mr. Madeja has already accepted the job as executive director of the new Center. He’s a “big asset” for this undertaking, Ms. Ward. He has “so much energy, enthusiasm and interest in the whole endeavor.”
Since 2012, he has pitched in as a volunteer director, working for no pay and he will continue to do so for the Center. All he earns is the satisfaction of the work itself, saying, “If this job isn’t about passion, then I don’t know what is.”
He and FWHA board president Vickie Burke are gearing up to start major fund-raising to fix up the Center campus. First on the agenda Ms. Burke said is bringing the NWCTU Headquarters Building, also called the Administration Building, up to life safety codes. The price tag for that is estimated at $50,000.
Once that is done, Ms. Burke said, "we can really get to work." The Center board members – two NWCTU and three FWHA officers, including Ms. Burke – also want to sort through all of the valuable Willard Library and Archive materials, save them in archival boxes and catalog them so they’re accessible to researchers. In recent years, Sarah Ward said, “NWCTU members just used the library as a repository, sending boxes and boxes of books and leaflets and memorabilia, so much that we overwhelmed the volunteer staff.”
Board members want to finish the ongoing restoration of Rest Cottage itself. Sarah Ward actually lived there for five years, from 1964 to 1969, as the national general secretary for the WCTU Youth Temperance Council. So when she sees the recent improvements and asks, “Doesn’t it look beautiful?” it means something.
Board members are also considering tearing down the garage and replacing it with a barn, like the one that stood there back in Ms. Willard's time. They are also hoping to restore the landscaping and add “a ’green fence’ of tightly planted trees and shrubs” that would define the historic district and dissuade pedestrians from trying to pass through.
They also want to increase the income produced by their property and services. The two houses next to Rest Cottage already offer rental apartments. The planned barn could be used to hold meetings, stage historic walks or host events, says Mr. Madeja.
Much of the steady income they hope to raise will come from rentals in the Administration Building, which Mr. Madeja sees as “full of possibilities.” The fix-up will be long and well thought out, he says.
Ms. Burke said, “We know the Administration Building needs air conditioning and an elevator.” How the space will be reused, she said, is still a question but “we know we’re not gutting the building. We’ll work with what’s there.”
What’s there is a three-story structure built in 1910 with 1922 and 1940 additions. It needs as much as $2 million in repairs and upgrades, according to two recent studies. Although it houses the Willard Library and Archives as well as the NWCTU Signal Press, it is significantly under-used. The third floor is virtually empty with a large meeting room and scores of tiny offices. The second floor offers more office space.
Mr. Madeja’s eyes light up at the possibilities for this rabbit warren of offices. He envisions renting them separately or in suites, for co-working spots, business start-ups or women-centered non-profits. As part of the adaptive reuse, he said, we could remove some walls and make exhibit spaces or bigger office areas for groups like the League of Women Voters and other groups “consistent with the Frances Willard legacy.”
That legacy is reflected in the names of both the Willard House Museum and the Willard Memorial Library. The idea of also incorporating her name into that of the new Center was rejected. The National WCTU was OK with this, Ms. Ward said ”After all, the WCTU is much more than Frances Willard.” Some FWHA members, however, held out a little longer for their Evanston hero. It was a “big debate,” Mr. Madeja admitted. Opponents argued that it was limiting to have such a singular connection to Frances Willard. They also pointed out that outsiders often linked Willard’s name to “the failed legacy of prohibition” or to “prohibitionists who didn’t want you to have fun.”
The Center’s name may not have the Willard name imbedded in it, said Mr. Madeja, but “it certainly matches Frances Willard’s ‘Do Everything’ philosophy.”
The creation of the Center through the merger and transfer of the buildings will be celebrated 3 to 4:30 p.m., Sept. 24, as part of the FWHA’s annual, Frances Willard “Do Everything” birthday party.
Everyone is welcome to this free event held on the front lawn of the Willard House Museum. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky will be there to talk about her own path to leadership, and a StoryCorps project will include leadership stories from those attending. Readers may submit a story to StoryCorps, at FrancesWillardHouse.org.