Winnetka Community House Turns 100
Living on the North Shore is a privilege—with our postcard-worthy town centers, Lake Michigan beaches, miles of biking trails, and culturally and educationally rich communities. Yet, we sometimes forget how fortunate we are.
Case in point: This year, the Winnetka Community House (WCH) celebrates 100 years of “enriching the lives of North Shore residents, their families, and friends by providing diverse educational, cultural, social, and recreational opportunities for people of all ages.” Not only was it the first center established in the United States solely for community purposes, but it is said to be one of only three community-supported centers in the entire United States.
This is no small feat and not something to take for granted, given that the WCH does not receive any tax dollars whatsoever, and never has, but is entirely supported by private donations. Established in 1911, the WCH has survived and grown through a century and generations that witnessed numerous wars, the Great Depression, a catastrophic fire, near insolvency, and several building additions that required extensive private fund-raising.
Today, the WCH has evolved into a 135,000-square-foot facility that offers its diverse, multigenerational population from Winnetka, as well as its neighboring communities, a meeting place for groups with any interests—social, philanthropic, business, recreational, religious, or educational. It provides a long list of programs and activities to meet virtually every human interest or pursuit that exists.
On Saturday, November 5, the WCH will kick off its yearlong Centennial Celebration with a champagne toast and an enormous party for the whole community, featuring food, drinks, crafts, carnival games, a special performance by Magic by Randy, and even an opportunity to meet Skates, the Chicago Wolves’ team mascot.
Dr. Benjamin Severance Winchester, Pastor of Winnetka Congregational Church, built in 1908, Mrs. Douglas Smith, and Associate Pastor Rev. J.W.F. Davies are credited as the community center’s early visionaries. Charged with the development of youth activities in 1909, Rev. Davies developed a robust program of youth activities, which included not only religious education but social and athletic guidance. This would set off the chain of events that would make it desirable to have an additional building, built in the vacant lot adjoining the church on Lincoln Avenue, which would provide space for a gymnasium, stage, clubrooms, and other facilities for church and community use.
In January 1911, church members resolved to raise the funds necessary to make the dream a reality and had the building completed by November of that year. From the beginning, they made no distinction between church and village. The initial community center, connected to the church via a corridor, was comprised of a large gymnasium, with a 24' x 12' stage at one end. The main floor also had a Neighborhood Room for social functions, a small kitchen, and an Assembly Room that served as a clubroom or meeting place for various groups. The second floor contained about 10 modestly sized clubrooms.
In 1912, Edward J. Schaad donated a moving picture machine to the WCH, which showed movies every Friday and Saturday—admission and popcorn were each 5 cents. For some 73 years, it served as the sole movie theatre in Winnetka. By 1915, about 75 organizations were utilizing the WCH with some 85,000 passing through its doors.
By 1922, the WCH was bursting at the seams, with some 61 groups actively using its facilities, including New Trier High School as its only gymnasium. The need for more space resulted in another drive for funds to build a substantial addition to the west of the existing structure, which was completed in January 1924. A fire destroyed much of the building in 1934, but it was rebuilt with characteristic community support and funding. By 1985, 165-plus groups and 750,000 individual visitors crossed the threshold of the WCH annually.
“The WCH has often been an incubator, a launch pad, for other organizations who don’t have a facility of their own,” says Timothy McCabe, Executive Director. “They use our discounted space until they get legs of their own and establish their own facility.” The Winnetka Community Nursery School was born here, as was the North Shore Senior Center.
And some organizations are content to have the WCH as their permanent home, such as the Winnetka Youth Organization, the North Shore Art League, and the Lake Shore
Over the years, the WCH has evolved with changing community needs and wishes. Countless tenants, clubs, and organizations have called the WCH home. Some have come and gone, while others have endured. What was once an active bowling alley was replaced to make room for the fitness center. The Friendship Circle Club expired in 1986 after many years of providing a social outlet for the maids and governesses of North Shore families. The infamous WCH Haunted House was initiated as a Halloween party in October 1917 and continues today—94 years later, it is thought to be the longest continuously running haunted house in the country.
“For 100 years, we have maintained and grown stronger and stronger,” says Louise Holland, General Chair of the Centennial Steering Committee and former Chair of the Board of
Governors. “The Winnetka Community House is the place to go for recreational activities of any kind. It is a remarkable institution and a feather in the cap of the community to have kept it going.”
Other centennial activities include the “Adopt a Star” STAR campaign. Community members can sponsor a 30- or 36-inch, three-dimensional star (for $450 and $650, respectively). Similar to Chicago’s infamous Cows on Parade campaign, WCH Stars will be designed by local artists and put on public display throughout Winnetka next summer.
The WCH’s single largest fund-raising event, the annual Antiques + Modernism Show will be held from October 20–23 this year. 2012 centennial events planned include the Centennial Gala on Saturday, April 28, a Sustainers Tea on September 20, and the Closing Ceremony on Friday, November 2.
For more information about the WCH and its Centennial Celebration, visit winnetkacommunityhouse.org. For information about the Adopt a Star program, contact Alana Flatley at 847-881-9316.