A Brief History
“The foundations of the Clubhouse are laid on the love and trust that women have for one another, and their will to serve each other and the city in which they live by means of the added wisdom, the added courage, the added inspiration and the added power that springs from their close association.”
--Alice Ames Winter, The Woman’s Club of Minneapolis, President, 1907 - 1915
In March of 1907, Mrs. Albert Rankin and Mrs. Charles Keyes, Sr. approach Miss Gratia Countryman, Chief Librarian of the Minneapolis Public Library (pictured), about a new kind of woman’s organization. Weeks later, 25 influential women are invited to convene in Miss Countryman's library office, and The Woman's Club of Minneapolis is born.
Reflecting back on the Club’s beginnings, first Club President Alice Ames Winter would later write,
“There was a scarcity of civic organizations in Minneapolis at the time the Club was started, and the members themselves felt doubtful whether women could ‘put over’ anything that dared to step into serious discussion and still more serious action concerning public doings. But we did…. If civilization is to move upward, it must be in the direction that helps myriads to live happy lives where only a few have had that privilege.” She continues, “The zeal for betterment needs to be tempered by a thousand agreeable things. Our music and our art and our reading together and our listening to interesting speakers, above all our delight in our relations with each other, are not the froth on the top of an otherwise excellent organization. They are of its very essence ...”
An early partnership is launched between the fledgling Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency (MVNA) and The Woman's Club of Minneapolis. Both organizations seek to address the need for access to better health care for the city’s more disadvantaged communities. With funds raised by the Woman’s Club, MVNA launches a public school nurse program in Saint Paul -- one of the first in the country -- in 1908.
In January of 1914, Helen Keller is invited to speak to Woman’s Club members at the Shubert Theatre. The event is open to the public, and the visually impaired community is invited to the event. Keller’s visit, according to a local article, adds “impetus to the work of the organization for the blind and much is being planned for the society within the next few months.” The event goes so well, Keller is asked to speak again the following year, and a century-long tradition of the Club’s Annual VIP Luncheon (Visually Impaired Persons) is begun.
The original Clubhouse on Harmon Place seems to shrink as membership grows, and a new, bigger location is needed. Designed by architect Léon Arnal, the Clubhouse overlooking Loring Park is built. Katherine Vilas, second Vice President, comments,
“We shall hardly know how to sit tables and eat comfortably in our new Clubhouse. We are so accustomed to balancing trays on our knees.”
Arnal, who later would be recognized for his work on the Foshay Tower and the U.S. Post Office, designs the Clubhouse in a Second Renaissance Revival style that harmonizes with the neighboring buildings. Details such as wrought-iron balconets, arched loggia and patterned brickwork create a distinctive landmark as well as a symbol that solidifies the influence of the Club. In 1998, the Clubhouse is officially designated a Historic Building by the City of Minneapolis.
Junior membership is established, allowing young women ages 18 - 30 to become members of the Club at a reduced fee structure. More than 50 young women join in the first year. Junior officers are chosen and each is appointed to sit on a Club Committee to encourage communication and participation.
On November 11, 1940, heavy snowfall brings traffic in central Minnesota to a standstill. A crowd of over 500 is expected for lunch to hear William Henry Chamberlain, who has flown in from Boston, speak. Within two hours, the switchboard handles over 400 calls to cancel due to the weather. The Club’s Vice President manages to get Mr. Chamberlain to U of M radio station WLB, where he broadcasts his talk for members to hear from the safety of their homes. Club employees create makeshift beds in the Clubhouse, as there is no way for them to get home that night. The storm goes down in history as the Armistice Day Blizzard.
Woman’s Club members become very involved in the war effort. In 1942, the Needlework Guild makes about 220 articles, representing over 5000 volunteer hours. 13,715 surgical dressings are made from November 11 through March 16, and 53 members give blood. Club members sell $60,000 in war bonds in that one year, equivalent to over $900,000 today. In an effort to better understand the allies, programs about China, Canada, Mexico, Russia and Philippines are held for members in the Assembly.
The Woman’s Club of Minneapolis is looking for a significant project, one the Club can donate to the city of Minneapolis in honor of the upcoming Bicentennial. One day, then-president Mrs. Catherine (Katy) Lenmark is driving by the vacant 1849 Ard Godfrey House, the oldest remaining frame home in Minneapolis--which has fallen into grave disrepair--and is inspired by an idea. Why not undertake the complete restoration of the house as the Club’s gift?
The Woman's Club of Minneapolis votes to restore the house to the period of 1849-1853, when the Godfrey family built the house and settled there. Some of the home’s original furnishings and household items are located and returned. In the end, over 500 people volunteer over 10,000 hours of labor.
The house is opened to the public on July 4, 1979 and more than 800 people attend.
Beginning in 1990, men are welcomed to join the Woman’s Club as members. The first male Club member, Herb Bissell, is voted in on June 22. Herb is renowned in the Minneapolis business community as an early advocate for the introduction of women into corporate leadership roles.
2006 - 2007
Celebrating 100 years of the Woman’s Club! The official opening of the newly constructed Rooftop Terrace kicks off the Centennial on April 22, 2006. Author and storyteller Garrison Keillor speaks at the celebration, calling Minneapolis of 1906 an era when “people of vision could create wonderful institutions.” Later the same year, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak declares April 22 - April 28 to be “The Woman's Club of Minneapolis Week” in the city of Minneapolis.