Gazette Article by: Ceilanne Libber
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2001
*90 YEARS YOUNG:
The Winnetka Community House Does NOT Act Its Age*
Walk through the doors of the Community House and the sounds of stagecraft for the next theatre production nearly muffle the clink of tableware being set for an evening reception.
You may need to dodge a group of children running through the halls in their karate uniforms or heading to a basketball game in the gym. Take a peek in the rooms and you’ll find people playing bridge, listening to piano recitals or speakers, learning to dance or sing, celebrating birthdays, training their dogs, and exercising their muscles.
For a lot of people on the North Shore, the Community House holds bits and pieces of their lives – memories of ballroom dancing lessons, Camp Douglas Smith, the bowling alley and the movie theatre are rekindled as their children and grandchildren take part in Community House life. And that is precisely what the Rev. J.W.F. Davies intended.
In 1909, Mr. Davies was the youthful pastor of the Winnetka Congregational Church when he noticed young people hanging around street corners with nothing to do. When he approached his congregation with the idea of building a community house, the seed for the first community center in the United States designated solely for community purposes was planted.
Two years later, on November 15, 1911, the building was dedicated. “It has always been a place for everyone regardless of religion or income and all are welcome” says 96-year old Byron Warnes, a long-time Winnetkan. To this day, the Community House has never received tax dollars to support its operations.
In 1917 and 1918, the house was a meeting place for a local reserve militia company and also entertained military personnel from the Great Lakes and Fort Sheridan bases. Sewing circles, Americanization classes and a club for gardeners of Winnetka estates met at the House in the early years.
Less than 20 years after its construction, fire destroyed most of the original building. But the Community House already was so firmly rooted in village history that a large-scale fund-raising drive assured the rebuilding of Davies’ dream despite the Depression that consumed most other philanthropic efforts.
The mission of the Community House has always been to enrich the lives of the people who use it. To accomplish its charter “the building has really adapted over the years,” says Don Van Arsdale, Community House Executive Director since 1991. “A fitness center has taken the place of a bowling alley and the rooms that once barely accommodated the Senior Center’s administrative staff, now host youth enrichment classes, events and meetings for thousands.” Since 1971, fundraising by the Woman’s Board has helped the Community House continue its work.
For the past three years, the House has been undergoing a period of operational and physical self-scrutiny. With input from parents, its tenant and affiliate organizations, recreation and early childhood professionals and long-time volunteers, it is evident that the current facility cannot keep pace with the needs and desires of the people it was built to serve.
A master architectural plan for an aesthetically improved community house is in place. The plan includes: additional rooms for youth enrichment activities and adult gatherings; an enhanced and expanded Fitness Center with stronger health and wellness programming components; renovations to Matz Hall; and more comforts (parking, wheel chair access, designated quiet spaces, air conditioning, and safe curbside drop-off points).
The community will be called upon to lend its support and bring about a renaissance for Winnetka’s talisman; the organization that will never act its age.