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The Rest Cottage home of Frances E. Willard (1839-1898), Evanston’s celebrated temperance and suffrage leader, may soon be the centerpiece of a new Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) Evanston Historic District. The district is expected to become a reality in mid-April after receiving unanimous approval March 22 from the City Council. Mary McWilliams, site manager for the WCTU, presented the proposal.
Besides Willard House at 1728-30 Chicago Ave. – already designated an Evanston landmark in 1994 and, since 1965, a National Historic Landmark – the proposed WCTU district would include neighboring properties to the north and south at 1724 and 1732 Chicago.
Significantly smaller than Evanston’s four other historic districts, the proposed district would cover only three houses, an office building and a garage, all owned by the National WCTU. They stand in the middle of the block on the west side of Chicago, between Church and Clark streets. The two buildings at 1724 and 1732 Chicago Ave. were bought in 1936 and 1950; they once housed WCTU officers but are now used as rentals. Willard House – comprised of Rest Cottage and an annex to the north built for Mary Bannister Willard – was bequeathed to the WCTU by Frances Willard and is now used as a museum honoring her.
It is important to create this historic district, Mrs. McWilliams told the RoundTable, to help protect the WCTU buildings, which are in an area zoned for high density. To the north is a towering apartment building. Across the street is an entire block of eight-story buildings. To the south a City parking lot and the Woman’s Club of Evanston act as a shield, but high-rises loom over every view of the WCTU buildings.
“A historic district designation would also open the door for grant applications,” Mrs. McWilliams said, “and serve as a jumping-off point for making the whole district a national landmark.” In fact, she said, the National Park District suggested creating such a district years ago.
All three houses represent what Mrs. McWilliams calls “residential vernacular, popular in Evanston before 1885.” Both 1724 Chicago Ave., an Evanston landmark already, and 1728-30 Chicago, Miss Willard’s “Rest Cottage,” were built in 1865, with an addition to Rest Cottage in 1882. The stick-style house at 1732 was built around 1882. Behind Willard House is the WCTU administration building, a 20th-century structure listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
“The specific combination of a Gable-Front, Side-Hall house [1724[, a Gothic Revival house [1728-30]with its original board and batten siding and a Stick Style house  sitting side-by-side occurs nowhere else in Evanston,” the proposal states. And they stand alone because every other house on both the east and west side of the 1700 block of Chicago has been torn down.
Frances Willard lived at Rest Cottage from 1865 until her mother died in 1892. She served as president of the Evanston College for Ladies, 1871-73. She was the first dean of women at Northwestern University, 1873-74. She served as the second president of the National WCTU, 1879-98, and president of the World’s WCTU, 1891-98. Enlisted in the suffrage cause, in 1879 she became the first woman to address the Illinois General Assembly when she brought myriad petitions from women all over the state asking for limited suffrage. In 1888 she joined Susan B. Anthony and May Wright Sewall in co-founding the National Council of Women and became its first president. In 1891 she wrote an early history of Evanston, lovingly called “A Classic Town.” She was the first woman to be honored in the U.S Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall, where each state has two representatives; she stands for Illinois along with Abraham Lincoln.
Yet, important as Frances Willard is, she was not the only one who lived at 1728-30 Chicago and played an important part in Evanston history. Her father, Josiah, for example, was president of the Evanston trustees in 1867. Her mother, Mary, was a charter trustee of the Evanston College for Ladies. Her sister-in-law, Mary Bannister Willard, edited the WCTU’s Union Signal and founded Evanston’s first free kindergarten, sponsored by the WCTU. Her one-time secretary, Anna Gordonm became the fourth president of the WCTU, 1914-25, and the World’s WCTU president, 1922-30. She led the WCTU campaign for the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that took effect in 1920, prohibiting the sale of alcohol throughout the country.
Evanston had already been a temperance community since 1855 when Northwestern University amended its charter to ban the sale of alcohol within four miles of the campus. After the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, Evanston voted by referendum to remain a temperance town. It was not until 1972 that Evanston’s City Council – under the new 1970 Illinois Constitution that did not require a referendum – voted to allow the sale of alcohol.
The 19th-century houses in the proposed WCTU district had builders, not architects. However, the 20th-century administration building was designed by two well-known Evanston architects. Charles Ayars (1861-1934) designed the original 1910 building and a 1922 addition. Nine of his local buildings are Evanston landmarks, including NU’s Swift Hall (1895). Earl H. Reed (1884-1968) designed the 1940 addition. He was known for the 1946 conversion of Evanston Country Club into the Evanston Municipal Building.
In 1900 Rest Cottage was turned into a museum honoring Miss Willard and the north annex into WCTU headquarters. Today the whole of Willard House is a museum, and the WCTU headquarters are in the administration building at the back of the property. Since establishing Rest Cottage as a museum, the WCTU has welcomed thousands of visitors from around the world.
All these kinds of facts – who lived there, why they mattered, what kind of buildings they are and who designed them – go into justifying any proposal to create a historic district.
Mrs. McWilliams, a former president of the Evanston History Center, wrote the WCTU proposal, a formidable task but one not new to her. She also wrote the proposal for the Northeast Evanston Historic District, created in 1999, and had a hand in proposing the Lakeshore and Ridge Historic Districts, established in 1980 and 1983. Her home is a designated Evanston landmark in the Ridge Historic District, and she admits, “When you advocate for historic districts, it’s kind of nice to be able to say you live in one.”