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The Woman’s Club of Evanston, established in 1889, at first had no permanent home and members met in each other’s homes. Almost 25 years later, they moved into the red brick clubhouse that stands at 1702 Chicago Ave. Landmark status had to wait 93 years, but was awarded in 2006.
Since the current building’s construction in 1913, it has gone through various overhauls – repurposing rooms, remodeling and redecorating. The club’s recent closure during the pandemic brought an unexpected opportunity: to do some necessary work and make some overdue changes.
The Woman’s Club is a not-for-profit organization, providing thousands of hours of volunteer service and making hundreds of financial grants to local organizations in need. The club offers events and programs throughout the year, as well as provides social functions for its membership.
The portico off Chicago Avenue, with the curving “drop off” driveway, was enlarged and enclosed in 1966, becoming the main entrance to the club. Now, that entry has been painted white, the stairs carpeted, seating provided so it “feels” like part of the interior.
Further inside, one steps onto a beautifully restored white marble floor, passes a table graced with white orchids and moves into a newly refurnished hallway with perfectly hung and grouped paintings.
Artwork at the club was restored 15 years ago – the Woman’s Club has a small but lovely collection of plein aire landscapes and traditional portraits of women, some of which date back to the turn of the last century. Among the prints are an Audubon and two by Evanston’s own Walter Burt Adams, one of which I had never seen before, poignantly titled Sunday Morning – My Farewell to Evanston.
In the Tea Room, the main first floor room, a state-of-the-art audiovisual system has been added, with new lighting to supplement the four rehabbed crystal chandeliers. New carpet is underfoot and everything has been painted that could be.
Restrooms always have a limited life cycle. Because it has been a club for women, a restroom for men was always given short shrift in the building. Until now, men were always sent to the basement, to an old, unwelcoming space almost under the stairs. “It was time to look at everything,” said Alicia O’Connor, Communications Chair, “And we moved into the might-as-well phase – might as well do this, might as well do that.”
The club hired Mark Lavender of M. Lavender Interiors of Memphis, Tenn. and Winnetka. With a background in architecture, Head Designer Lavender did a strategic update plan for the club, looking into how the building could be of better service. Changes were prioritized and the restrooms were first on his list.
Jan Hartwell, past Woman’s Club President led the master planning process along with a committee of dedicated members. Members sought bids and managed the contracting for construction and interior decoration.
The fund-raising campaign for renovations had already been started, in 2019. The pandemic caused all events at the club to be either canceled or postponed so, even though they didn’t have all the funds needed, members decided to proceed with the work.
On the first floor, one restroom has been enlarged and a second added – both have individual stalls, are “gender neutral” and are completely accessible. Artwork hangs on the walls in the bathrooms, as it always should, according to this artist.
The porch on the south, formerly a step down, has been raised to the main level. The adjacent card room can be a bride’s anteroom, with direct and private access to the larger restroom. Changeable signs for the restroom doors can specify “women only” if a rental event requires.
Hidden speakers have been installed In the Music Room on the west, along with three new chandeliers. An unnecessary third entrance to that room was walled off, creating a focal point for a painting of a young girl that now hangs there. The portrait, which O’Connor thinks is “haunting,” can be seen as far away as the main entry on Chicago Avenue.
The Members’ Room, in the southeast corner, has new furniture and the very oldest painting of the art collection. In a glass case in that room, lies Woman’s Club memorabilia, including the trowel used for laying the cornerstone to the building in 1913.
The elegant stairway with its newly dark, curving bannisters, has been improved with a center railing for safety and convenience. On the second floor, the former Ladies’ Dressing Room and Restroom has three new individual stalls now to add to the two that have always been there.
(This reporter used to hang a short velvet cape in the Dressing Room when she attended Miss Pocock’s formal ballroom dancing classes back in the fifties. Miss Pocock predated “Fortnightly” classes which were held for teenagers for years, sponsored by the North End Mothers’ Club. Does anyone else remember Miss Pocock’s classes?)
The Grand Ballroom itself is the final phase of renovation. The large parquet floor needs to be restored and refinished and the room needs painting. But stage work was done in December, so the women of the club will be able to put on their benefit revues again. They will hold their wonderful “Dreams Delivered” event – clean, beautiful, free prom dresses for high school seniors, this April.
An elevator was added in 1997, providing access to all three floors in the Woman’s Club and to the balcony above the ballroom. Proud parents used to watch their offspring dance around the floor from that height. The balcony also provides extra seating for the annual revues and popular events.
“Members have always been generous, willing to open their wallets and give to keep this building beautiful,” O’Connor said. “But, this time, we were the recipients of generosity besides that of club members: the Romano Brothers & Co. and Jennifer Pritzker’s Tawani Foundation contributed graciously to the project.”
Evanston is proud of this lovely building, its landmark designation and of the history of the club. Probably at its height, when similar clubs were sprouting all over the country, the membership stood at 1,200. Now it’s more like 300, but there’s room for 100 more.
The Woman’s Club of Evanston has most certainly come up to date.