The tradition 24 women began 127 years ago lives on, just as their 120-year-old downtown headquarters still stands today.
Ask members of the Peoria Women’s Club what they like best about the PWC and they’ll tell you that their friends are there, they learn something new from the meetings’ speakers, they grow from the experiences they share—and they love the Women’s Club building. As Marilyn Burton describes, “It’s like coming to a lovely home.” This year the Women’s Club celebrates its 127th anniversary, and the club building’s 120th.
The Club’s Beginnings
The club was the idea of Clara Parsons Bourland in 1885, a time when women were expected to be mistresses of their homes, nurturers of their children, and keepers of the nation’s morality. Bourland envisioned a place where the city’s women would gather to study and learn about art and literature, history, politics and business. In addition, it would provide an avenue for active community service.
She galvanized 24 friends to join her in forming the Peoria Women’s Club. The club’s purpose? Self-education, certainly, but also “mutual sympathy and counsel”—and a united effort for community improvements. Bourland was elected president, a position she held for 25 years.
The charter members first met in January of 1886, and then regularly on Mondays nine months of the year. Meetings were held at Bourland’s home on Knoxville Avenue, later at the old Pettengill Seminary (on the site of the present-day Scottish Rite Cathedral), and then in the parlors of the old National Hotel at the corner of Hamilton and Jefferson. The women studied history, economics, civic affairs, literature, art and domestic science, and learned how to conduct research, give speeches, engage in debate of current events,anddevelop implementable solutions to city problems. They also learned how to structure an organization, use parliamentary procedures, and handle the club’s financial affairs.
Building a Home
In 1891, Bourland proposed the women build a clubhouse. To accomplish this, they formed a stock company and sold shares at $10 each. They raised $25,000, bought land at the corner of Fayette and Madison, and hired an architectural firm to design the grand, imposing, red brick clubhouse in the Romanesque Revival style. The cornerstone was laid in 1893, and the remaining $20,000 mortgage was paid off by the club’s silver anniversary in 1911.
The women had seen to the design of their clubhouse. It remains the same today. On the first floor is an ample meeting parlor and a large dining room, as well as a cloakroom, pantry and kitchen. The second floor features a charming 453-seat music hall with superb acoustics, a floor that slopes downward toward the stage, and a “raked” stage that tilts forward so the audience can see to the back of it. The music hall was used for music programs, plays and lectures. The club became a social center for the city and was home for performances of the Amateur Music Club, Peoria Players and the Peoria Symphony.
by Mary Ann Armbruster, President of the Peoria Women’s Club
Each year, the Peoria Women’s Club keeps alive the traditions of presenting educational and cultural programs on a regular basis. The public is invited to these programs and the luncheons that follow, which encourage strong bonds of fellowship between the women and with the community.
Steeped in the club traditions of the past, the current membership, especially, seeks to preserve its historic building. The club holds the distinction of being one of the oldest existing active women’s clubs in the United States, and is unique in owning its own building. As it celebrates 120 years at 301 NE Madison Avenue, the group has pursued Peoria Historical Commission landmarking status, which was approved by the Peoria City Council in April. Raising funds for the restoration of the second-floor auditorium remains high on the list of goals.
“I have a warm feeling for this wonderful building in Peoria owned only by women,” says club member Carolyn Kraft. “The ambiance of the gracious old building, its artworks and furnishings provide a sense of peace and continuity,” adds Lee Anderson. “I can almost see and hear the founders in these surroundings.”
Affecting Community Change
Within its first several decades, the club could count among its achievements: the securing of a state hospital for the insane in Bartonville; successful lobbying for a state law for the care and education of young blind children; the establishment of the Protective Agency for Women and Children in Peoria; starting kindergarten classes in public schools; a traveling library that took books to the county’s rural areas; and passage of city sanitation ordinances. Individually, the club members gained self-confidence, courage, companionship, and access to continuing education. They became active participants in the affairs of their communities. By the turn of the century, Peoria’s city council members were lobbying the women of the Peoria Club for support. The women had influence. They had power. They could affect change.
For 127 years—120 since the clubhouse opened—members have gathered regularly. The women are long-time friends and when they get together each week, they talk about things that interest them. They still take turns acting as hostess for lunch and follow the formal serving rules documented by a club member years ago. The clubhouse rooms are familiar and comfortable, the activities stimulating. There is a wonderful sociability in the scene, a warmth and camaraderie that these women cherish.
“A bonding takes place between the women,” says club member Marsha Swardenski, “A mutual support and a sharing of commitment to the community, a continuing of our learning experience and growth.” The tradition that 24 women began in 1886 lives on today. iBi