Appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 Gazette
by Holly Marihugh
Dr. Alice Barlow Brown opened her door to host the first meeting of the Winnetka Woman’s Club on January 23, 1908, and only nine other women were present at the brand spanking new club. Dr. Barlow Brown went on to rescue and treat civilians in war-torn France during WWI and continued a career of medical service abroad. Those few members in her home didn’t know then that the club also would have a grand future filled with hundreds of members accomplishing great things through generous philanthropy, a network of community connections, and lasting friendships.
In the 115 years since the club was created, it’s given more than $200,000 to fund college scholarships for local students, created the wildly popular “House Walk” fundraising tour around town, and welcomed many local clubs and non-profits into its classic club house that used to sit across from the Village Green.
One of the main thrusts of the club through the last few decades was to fund scholarships for students in New Trier Township. After filling in an application, students met face-to-face with club board members and shared their dreams.
“Meeting these students and seeing the talent in the community was amazing,” Marla Bagan says, who served as board president for three separate one-year terms. “We based our selections on academic achievement, need-based factors, and community involvement. Some of these kids had established not-for-profits on their own. You’d come out of those student interviews and feel like, the future’s going to be good.”
To fund those scholarships, the club pulled off a magic trick of grand proportions every year when it invited local folks to showcase their homes to the public through a House Walk. That meant that up to 300 visitors could walk in the front door and tour just about every room of a featured house. In its final three years (2017-2019), the House Walk brought in over $115,000. Dozens of volunteer docents signed up to host, local retailers donated design services and flowers, and Winnetka police officers directed traffic while visitors navigated the route.
“The club hosted the first House Walk on the North Shore.” says Marsha Rodes, who was the club’s office manager from 2000-12. “Karen Considine chaired the House Walk for several years, and she was one of the key people on that committee. She had such an eye for design and would do the tablescapes and floral arrangements.”
The club’s iconic Victorian meeting house sat across from the Village Green at the corner of Maple and Oak for more than 100 years. The Woman’s Club bought it in 1911 for $6,200 from a local men’s club that could no longer meet the mortgage. The club house became the center of an overflowing number of community connections throughout the decades.
“We donated the club space to lots of organizations for their fundraising, which helped everybody,” Marla Bagan says. “The Boys Scouts used the ballroom for whatever event they wanted to sell tickets to. School PTOs, Family Service of Winnetka-Northfield, Winnetka Youth Organization, Women’s Exchange, Veteran’s Day groups, and many others all used it. It was free space. Instead of having to rent a room somewhere they could meet in a really nice local space, which helped their bottom line.”
A lasting legacy of the Winnetka Woman’s Club was the enduring friendships that members formed over the years.
“I treasured the friendships and connections with other women in the community,” Bagan says. “You can’t put a price on those. They’re just invaluable. I remember one year, we were getting ready for our croquet fundraiser, the ‘Silver Wicket.’ A gal who lived on Elder was walking by, and she asked what we were doing. Her name was LeAnita Ragland-Brooks. She ended up joining the club and chairing the very last Silver Wicket. She even became club president one year.”
Many villagers remember club member Mary Lou Bilder-Gold who was the smiling woman who visited countless newcomers in their homes through Welcome Wagon.
“That’s another fabulous gal, and she’s the reason I joined the club,” Bagan says. “Those of us who got under her spell often say that’s how we joined. Mary Lou would come and sit in your kitchen for an hour with the Welcome
Wagon basket. She’d say, ‘You should look at the Winnetka Woman’s Club.’”
With the turn of the century in 2000, club members found that even though the organization was a 501(c)(3) non-profit, paying hefty real estate taxes on the club house persisted and became a thorn in the side.
“We were never able to get off the real estate tax rolls, even though we were a non-profit,” Rodes says. “We weren’t taxed as a business per se, but the taxes were on a residential basis, and they were still very high.”
When a large chunk of the club’s fundraising began to be targeted only at the tax bill, club members saw the writing on the wall. They wanted to keep giving but would have to find a less expensive location. The grand Victorian club building, built in the 1890s was sold to a property developer and faced the wrecking ball in 2015.
“We had a rummage sale,” Bagan says. “We sold everything from the ballroom drapes to the electric chair for the staircases and all the other contents. It was really hard. For a long time after the building was demolished, I didn’t even want to drive by that corner.”
But that cloud had a silver (even gold) lining. In the year after the sale of the historic building, the club was able to give $40,000 in college scholarships to students.
The club continued to glide along, hosting the final House Walk in 2019 and continuing to shake hands with and give scholarships to worthy students. However, the global covid pandemic did the club no favors, and with membership rolls continuing to dwindle, members decided to close the club’s doors permanently in 2022. The club then opened its philanthropic bank vault and emptied it, giving to many local organizations.
“We weren’t getting new members and to keep this club going, we would have had to get younger moms,” Bagan says. “But we had this significant amount of money that we could disperse. We said, let’s continue on through our gifts to other organizations. Then they can continue the good work that they’re doing. You want to go out on a high note.”
The following local organizations received a total of $500,000 from The Winnetka Woman’s Club at the end of 2022: New Trier High School Scholarship Trust, Community House Winnetka, Winnetka Parks Foundation, Winnetka Historical Society, Women’s Exchange, New Trier Angel Fund, and several non-profits chosen by club members.
The club’s commitment to scholarships continues through its donation to the New Trier High School Scholarship Trust which will fund two scholarships every year in perpetuity.