19th Century club, 21st century facelift

Association hopes to raise a half million for landmark structure rehab

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

The stately Nineteenth Century Charitable Association (originally "19th Century Woman's Club") building at 178 Forest Avenue in Oak Park is in need of a facelift.

The masonry is visibly in disrepair, the distinctive white columns have lost their luster, and the original windows should be restored, not replaced, befitting its 2010 designation as a historic landmark.

Inside, say its members, is a headache long past waiting to happen — including electricity and plumbing issues. The industrial kitchen also needs an upgrade.

And the walls could use a new paint job, too.

In an effort to preserve this gem for future generations, the association is conducting the first phase of a three-year capital campaign to raise $500,000.

To date, they are about 65 percent of the way to their goal, so beginning in mid-October they launched their public phase of the fundraising effort, in hopes that local businesses, and private donors would pitch in to help them achieve their objective of repairing and restoring what they say is a distinctive community asset.

Their troubles maintaining the building began in 2008 when they unexpectedly received a Cook County property tax bill for $89,000, said Nancy Waichler, vice president of finance for the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association (NCCA). Until then, the group had been tax exempt.

"Well, after that, we couldn't take money and put it into the building to maintain it, so that had a negative impact on us," Waichler said.

Over the last five years, they have annually undergone the Cook County assessor's property tax appeal process, as many homeowners do, and this year they owe "a little over $52,000," she said.

The good news, according to Jerry Hills, NCCA's vice president of marketing and public relations, is that during the early phase of the capital campaign, "We actually raised enough money two years ago to do the west portion of the roof, which is slate. So within the capital campaign, we are hoping to raise the money to do the rest of it." When the remainder of the funds are secured, she added, "the place where we will start is the portico, because we have some serious leakage. So the major portion of the funds we are raising will be used to repair and restore the exterior."

Now and then

Established in 1891, The Nineteenth Century Woman's Club was formed by a group of forward-looking women who realized that education and civic involvement were the keys to building a community. As their all-female movement grew in size, they hired architect James L. Fyfe in 1928 to design a two-story Classical Revival "clubhouse" for their use.

Three years ago, the building's facade was designated as a "Contributing Resource within the Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie School of Architecture Historic District."

As the role of women in the world changed, so did the groups' function in Oak Park. In 1997, the all-female membership went co-ed when Lee Brooke joined, and now 15 men are on the 200-plus roster. About a decade later, Sherlynn Reid was elected the first African-American president.

The last major renovation of the building occurred 15 years ago.

"In 1998, the new elevator was installed, making all levels of the building accessible," said Carol Conboy, the current president. "An ADA restroom was also installed. The club won a Nicholas Award [from the village of Oak Park] and a Universal Access Award for accessibility renovations."

In 2010, Mila Tellez, publisher of Extra Bilingual Newspaper, during the first year of her two-year term as president, in collaboration with the board of directors and membership, led the group through the process of becoming an Illinois charitable corporation known as the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association.

Currently, NCCA is the umbrella for all charitable activities the nonprofit continues to do, Tellez says.

"Changing the name of the 19th Century Club to the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association served a number of purposes, but the two I can say is letting the community residents know that we are a charity and not an exclusive club," Tellez said. "That changed the culture of what we were doing, even though we were always giving grants to many of the nonprofits in Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park, as well as scholarships to high school graduates. What this capital campaign is doing, is preserving this architectural treasure of a building so it, and we, can continue to do this kind of work so the whole community can benefit."

To that end, according to Ellen Winter, executive director of NCCA, said 349 events were held in the Landmark building, roughly 80 percent of them in support of local non-profits, who use the facility at a reduced cost or for free.

"Our biggest focus is really to open our doors to the community and make sure other nonprofits could rely on us for either their benefit, or just space to have a meeting because a big part of our mission statement is to make sure that since we do have this big, beautiful space, it is out there for the community to use, as well — not just for our membership," Winter said.

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