Everyone who has driven down Walnut Street on Spokane’s lower South Hill has gone past the Woman’s Club building on the corner of Ninth Avenue. In the heart of Spokane’s oldest residential neighborhood, the brick building, on both the National and Spokane registers of historic places, is easily recognized and might seem like something of an anachronism, a throwback to a time of white gloves and ladies hats.
“Ours may be a landmark building,” said Ginger Bowman-Rape, Woman’s Club president, “but we are anything but a has-been. The Woman’s Club is still very much an active group where everyone is welcome, and we’re still enthusiastically contributing to the vitality of our community” – and with a really great building that also serves as a community meeting place, she added
Past president Charlotte Coker said: “It’s remarkable. Everybody knows somebody who went to a dance here or attended a meeting or wedding. We have been involved in the lives of this city for 100 years.”
And it has been more than a 100 years since the original cottage was built for $6,000 at the site within what is now the Ninth Avenue Historic District in Cannon’s Addition. It wasn’t long before it soon became unable to accommodate all the events and meetings taking place there, sometimes attended by 250-plus women at a time. So it was partly dismantled at the south end and added on to in 1929 at a cost of $40,000, resulting in the 10,000 square-foot building that stands there today. In continuous use since that time as a meeting hall for the Woman’s Club and community activities, it was the only clubhouse originally designed and built specifically for women.
A newspaper report in 1916 noted that while there were other organizations for women, “the Woman’s Club of Spokane is the largest club in the state to own its own club home.”
The building was designed by prolific Spokane architect Gustav Albin Pehrson, who is also responsible for the Paulsen Medical and Dental Building, Culbertson’s Department Store (now Macy’s), the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roosevelt Apartments and, in collaboration with Kirtland Cutter, the Davenport Hotel. The basic design of the Woman’s Club is typical vernacular commercial block architecture but with a Tudor Revival influence in the pitched roof, front-facing gable and wooden lintels. It has a variegated multi-colored pressed brick veneer and a featured polychrome terra cotta ornamentation.
The only rooms salvaged from the original are a basement dining room and assembly room (which was supposed to have been a swimming pool, but those plans were never realized). The Pehrson-designed addition centered around two main-floor auditoriums, one 3,000 square feet and the other 1,200 square feet.
“And I’d like to mention that we’ve got one of the best dance floors in Spokane, nice and springy,” said Rosemary Small, house superintendent. The auditoriums retain the original 1929 fir flooring.
What has transpired in the building since the early days has been in response to the changing needs of women and the larger community. The Woman’s Club, formed in Spokane in 1905, organized the first day care center in 1910, with records showing care for 6,490 children and six physicians donating services to the children – in just the first year. The day care closed in 1922, and a kindergarten was organized by 1928, operating through the 1950s.
During World War I, the building was opened to the Red Cross. Through the years, the members helped furnish the Hutton Settlement, helped organize the Pre-Vocational Center and Head Start programs in Spokane, provided clothing for women’s shelters, assisted in funding for the Ronald McDonald House and established a nursing scholarship at the Community Colleges of Spokane.
As they continued their work in the community, members realized that more and more of their volunteer activities were taking place outside their building, which has been underutilized these past 10 to 15 years, according to Small.
“We have always rented out the building for functions, and hold 10 to 30 wedding here each year,” she said, “but we are trying different things here now, too.” They’ve had a neighborhood Halloween party, breakfast with Santa, style shows, a health fair, exercise classes, an event honoring Lilac Festival princesses and music events – such as the popular Lord of the Drums band concert – and are even the site for some commercial film productions. They have begun a new club there for high school girls in an effort to emphasize to younger women the benefits of community service.
Bowan-Rape, the 30-something president of the Woman’s Club, recognizes that service clubs decline if they do not respond to the needs of the communities they serve and also attract younger members. Though it has members from throughout the city, the club has reached out to its immediate neighbors in Cannon’s Addition and younger friends and acquaintances. Membership now extends from women in their 20s through their 90s – and three men.
And they have a lovely, historic, centrally located building in which to serve their community. Just ask them – they’ll be happy to tell you all about it.