“C” is for Community House

Gazette Article by: Trish Early
Appeared in the Gazette: Winter 1995

Several years ago when the Minnesota Historical Society reopened its exhibit area, a unique approach was taken to interpret its history from “A to Z.” Various objects and topics were depicted by “letters,” and visitors moved through the gallery “alphabetically.” The editorial board of the Winnetka Historical Society Gazette has decided to adopt a similar technique and has added a new feature, “WINNETKA HISTORY: A to Z.”

Although officially known as Winnetka Community House, this institution has been lovingly referred to simply as “Community House” for 84 years. In fact this shortened version was the original name proposed by the Rev. J. W. F. Davies, its founder, a month prior to its dedication on November 17, 1911.

Davies provided both the inspiration and direction for Community House’s early years. Many are familiar with the story of the young minister of education at the Winnetka Congregational Church overhearing a group of boys complaining that they had nothing to do. As a result a boys’ club was formed. When the need for a recreational facility became critical, Davies arranged a meeting between the boys and the Men’s Club of the church. At this and subsequent gatherings, a plan was conceived, and $47,000 was eventually raised. One of the issues discussed was whether the church should construct this building for itself or for the whole community. All agreed it should be for the community. By the end of its first month of operation, there were 51 different groups using the House each week.

“Chief” Davies earned his nickname form summers spent at Camp Douglas Smith, another popular program he developed. For 21 years he served Community House as its director and major fund-raiser. He not only oversaw its incredible growth but also its tragic destruction. On December 22, 1930, due to faulty wiring, the building caught fire. Davies’ final work before retiring was to raise the money for the present structure.

The “Chief” would be very proud of his legacy today. Community House is thriving, having in 1995 just completed a $250,000 capital improvement plan which is part of a commitment to the longevity of the building for future generations. Since 1931 it has operated as a non-profit corporation without any tax support.

Faced with some difficult decisions about its future in the 1970’s and 80’s, the Board of Governors responded by creating the Womans’ Board, its fundraising arm, responsible for the Antiques and Modernism Shows. For the first time both Boards included members from surrounding communities and reflect the demographic diversity of the users. However, the original Community House concept remains intact. Executive Director Don Van Arsdale feels its success is due to its flexibility. “With time it has become different things as the needs arose.” For example, with World War II there was a need for childcare, so Winnetka Community Nursery was established; with the baby boom, a teen center was formed; and today with the increased interest in personal health, the Fitness Centre has been expanded three times. In addition to its diverse programs, Community House also serves as a non-profit campus, supplying space for a variety of organizations which provide cultural, spiritual and support services to the North Shore.

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