Inconspicuously tucked away on the quiet corner of Homer Avenue and Cowper Street, the Tudor-Craftsman style building housing The Woman's Club of Palo Alto could be mistaken for any other charming residential home close to Downtown Palo Alto. But in fact, it embodies a legacy of civic, social and philanthropic engagement that began in the 19th century and continues today.
On June 16, a century after the first cornerstone was laid on the property, The Woman's Club of Palo Alto will rededicate the clubhouse and commemorate 100 years of women's efforts to promote the club's original values of friendship, community involvement and self-improvement. The public event will also celebrate the building's recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places as well as the 100-year plaque that was awarded to the club by the Palo Alto Stanford Heritage organization.
For club members, the building represents the founding members' achievement of simply establishing a presence in the community in 1916. The club had been founded by 24 women in 1894, but the construction of the clubhouse provided a place for women to engage with each other and the community.
"If you think about organizations, when you don't have a home, you are not secure. ... If you don't have a home, where do people find you?" Sue Krumbein, a Centennial co-chair, said, adding that the building was a triumph for both the club and the city.
Early on, the members raised $1,000 to purchase the lot on Homer, but it took a decade to raise the initial $5,300 for construction. By the end, the total cost of the building was $10,590.
The founding women helped set the tone for Palo Alto's future by lobbying for a sewer system, planting the city's first trees, and working for California women's suffrage in 1911. Dr. Mary Grafton Campbell, the club's first president, encouraged women to advocate for change. During this time, member Julia Gilbert founded the city's first library and Anna Zschokke became known as the "Mother of Palo Alto Schools" because she worked to establish the Palo Alto school district and later built the first high school buildings in 1897.
From 1916 to 1929, club members were involved in local and national issues concerning the war effort, universal suffrage and women in politics. In 1917, club member Lydia Mitchell co-founded the Palo Alto Red Cross and, since the nascent charity did not have headquarters until 1948, the Red Cross met at the Woman's Club of Palo Alto.
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the club organized efforts to collect, repair and distribute used clothing and food. A board member, Mrs. Zink, garnered members' support for a new shelter for unemployed, homeless men. This effort, called "Hotel de Zink" after her husband, Police Chief Harold Zink, provided food, shelter and work for 50,000 men over two-and-a-half years.
The '40s and '50s saw a swell in membership and activity. During World War II, the club was a center for Red Cross activities, Women's Air Corps meetings, and fundraising events for war bonds and nurses' scholarships. Additionally, a Junior Club for women 16 to 35 was established in 1941, during which time the group added 30 interest groups, and membership grew to 350.
After a period of decline between 1970 and 1990, the City of Palo Alto's centennial in 1994 galvanized an effort to rehabilitate the clubhouse and implement new programs that would appeal to local women. After membership increased, the club revamped and formalized its Philanthropy Committee. From 2000 to 2013, the club distributed $110,000 to various nominated groups. In 2010, the club established an Outreach Committee to support Haven House, an interim housing facility for families transitioning out of homelessness.
The club's own home, built by renowned architect Charles Edward Hodges, was designed to blend into the residential community and has withstood the tests of time. With its mature heritage oak trees, entry portico and bay of mullioned windows, it is charming and welcoming.
The main entrance opens into a large foyer where the past is palpable in details like the original maple tongue, fir and oak flooring and the Arts and Crafts style fireplaces made with salt glazed tiles manufactured by the Steiger Terra Cotta and Pottery Company of San Francisco.
Additionally, inside the large ballroom, the stage had an advertising fire curtain installed in 1926 by an ad agency that paid the club $500 to hang the curtain. Local businesses were charged to advertise on the curtain. Still in use, it's an artifact depicting local businesses from the early 20th century, though one business still exists in Palo Alto today.
For Krumbein and Lolly Osborne, Centennial co-chair, next Thursday's event is the culmination of a year devoted to examining the club's history. At each monthly meeting, they honored women from the past and hosted current visionaries to speak about some of the club's longstanding philanthropic interests, such as the environment.
"By the end of June, we just wanted (the club members) to be proud that they were part of the Woman's Club (and) excited and happy about what The Woman's Club was and (is) today," Krumbein said.
Additionally, in preparation for the centennial event, Krumbein and Osborne sought to make the history and legacy of the club's founding mothers come alive for its members by hosting a couple of period-themed events, including a 1920s-style speakeasy and a ladies' high tea. The two events generated enthusiasm for an exploration and celebration of the club's history and significant milestones.
Today, the Woman's Club of Palo Alto has grown to 225 members and continues the founders' legacy of playing a meaningful role in the civic, cultural and philanthropic life of Palo Alto. On Sept. 16, 1916, the clubhouse opened its doors to more than 500 Palo Alto residents who attended the opening reception, and The Palo Alto Times stated, "We believe The Woman's Club ... is preparing to contribute a great deal to the future of the City."
One hundred years later, members believe that statement still rings true.
What: Centennial Celebration. Tours of local homes start at 3:30 p.m. From 5-7 p.m., the clubhouse, with exhibits of items used by women in the past and live music, is open to the public.
When: Thursday, June 16, 3:30-7 p.m.
Where: 475 Homer Ave., Palo Alto