The Origins of the Winnetka Community House

What to do with Boys? The Origins of the Winnetka Community House

Gazette Article by: Nan Greenough
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2012

Boys—and what to do with them—were a major Winnetka issue in the early 1900s. The question had dogged the Village for years, with no good solution. Regularly, articles in The Messenger (the Congregational Church newspaper) complained that, by loafing around the depot, the stores and the post office, boys disturbed the peace. They got into trouble. They used bad language. Some urged the Village to hire an additional police officer to deal with perceived delinquency.

The Village had been transformed from a small farming village of several hundred in the 1860s to a commuter suburb of 3,000 by 1910. The character and needs of the Village had changed. There were now 1,300 children, about half of them running loose (according to curmudgeonly letter writers) across the Village.

The typical Community House story was told by associate pastor of the Congregational Church Rev. J.F.W. Davies, known as “Chief,” who overheard several boys talking: “This is the dullest place,” one boy said to another, “not a thing for a fellow to do.” Rev. Davies asked the boys if they liked the idea of forming a club. The idea they really liked was to play indoor baseball. Rev. Davies encouraged the church to build a “community house” so that boys would have a place to go.

The actual story is a bit more complicated. In 1906 on the day that the Congregational Church opened its new church building (on the southwest corner of Lincoln and Pine, now called the “Children’s Chapel”), church member and benefactor Mrs. Douglas Smith speculated with the pastor Dr. Benjamin Winchester and his wife about opening a building next door with classrooms, a gymnasium, a stage and facilities for community service.

This conversation came easily in the context of the principles and practices of the Congregational Church in America: a commitment to education, intellectual independence and community participation. In Winnetka, led by Rev. Quincy Dowd, who joined as pastor in 1885, the church had facilitated community activities such as town meetings, social and cultural events and lectures by faculty members from major universities. “He put the Church in the background and service in the foreground,” affirmed Carrie Burr Prouty, a well-regarded Village resident.

Reaching out to attract the best creative talents in the community without regard to church affiliation, Rev. Dowd was a major force, often with his friend Henry Demarest Lloyd, across virtually all aspects of Village life.

Early on, Winnetkans became familiar with the “settlement house” movement in Chicago. This reform movement began in the 1880s seeking to change social conditions caused by the industrial revolution and urbanization; it attracted financial support and participation from the well-to-do. “Settlement houses” often contained meeting rooms, gymnasiums, theaters, dining halls, and some residential quarters. There, volunteer middle class “settlement workers” would share knowledge and culture with the urban poor—often immigrants—while teaching them skills that might improve their social mobility.

Foremost within the settlement house movement was Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, a close personal friend of Winnetka’s social and political reformer Henry Demarest Lloyd. Annually, Winnetka public school children made Thanksgiving contributions to the poor served by Hull House and some classes gave Christmas presents to the children of Gad’s Hill. Children and mothers from various settlement houses were invited to Winnetka, for summer outings “in the country.” Settlement house boards such as Gad’s Hill and Northwestern Settlement are still active in Winnetka today.

In 1904, the Congregational Church hired Dr. Benjamin Winchester, a nationally recognized leader of the Sunday School movement. He, in turn, realized that the church needed an additional pastor for education, as well as more space. He discovered Rev. J.F.W. Davies, the highly-regarded superintendent of the large Armour Mission Sunday School in Chicago, and lured him to Winnetka.

Rev. Davies had spent a year residing at Chicago Commons (modeled after Hull House), with its new gymnasium, auditorium and activities rooms. So, he was unimpressed with the Church Council’s earliest suggestion that an auxiliary community space be a shed or a small building behind the church. The Village had no gymnasium, nor any other facilities for organized recreation. Building on testimony from boys that there was “nothing to do for youth,” he lobbied for a larger facility—inspired by the settlement houses of his prior experience—that could act as a social facility for a quickly growing community.

Help came in the form of a land donation (immediately south of the church, on Lincoln) from Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Smith and serious cheerleading by Rudolph Matz, a formidable benefactor as well as fundraiser. The congregation approved receipt of donations, a building plan and purchase of equipment. Moreover, the congregation decided the facility was to be used by all Winnetka residents and that the church would ensure the Community House would close each year free from debt. It was the church’s gift to the Village.

The building opened in November 1911. Programs sprang to life immediately with several clubs for boys and girls, gymnasium classes, dancing, basketball, scouts, Campfire Girls, photography, chorus, orchestra and tennis. Adults were attracted by social activities, civic discussions and sports. Community outreach, including English classes for immigrants and a community health nurse, was integral to early offerings.

Winnetka institutions that got their start here include the North Shore Art League, Hadley School for the Blind, the Winnetka Community Nursery School (and its annual Children’s Fair), the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, the North Shore Senior Center, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, one of the earliest Rotary clubs in the country and the American Legion.

In 1930, the church donated the building to the community and it was reorganized as a not-for-profit institution. “Chief” Davies ran the Community House according to his vision of community service, outreach and public participation for twenty years. In keeping with the Community House’s mission to foster good character, one of Chief’s first official acts was to form the “Sir Galahad Club” to clean up the language of the young visitors by assessing a fine of one cent for the use of a word considered by Chief to be profane.

The Community House building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.  The year 2012 marks its 100th year of service in Winnetka.  Much of the information in this article was drawn from the document written by Gwen Sommers Yant that nominated the Winnetka Community House building for listing on “The National Register of Historic Places” in 2007.

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