The Woman’s Building, 240 W. Gilman Street, marks the significance of the advocacy, influence, and philanthropy of Madison’s late 19th and early 20th century women—women who made a difference in the civic life of the community long before being able to exercise their right to vote in 1920.
The Woman’s Club of Madison was founded on February 22, 1893. Within a week, 96 women became charter members. These women came from some of Madison’s most prominent families: Tenney, Atwood, Olin, Vilas, Brittingham, Fairchild, and La Follette.
The purpose of the Club, according to its bylaws, was “to promote agreeable and useful relations among women” and “to aid in the development of their intellect by the consideration and discussion of all subjects of interest, moral and social.”
The Madison group was part of a national nascent women’s movement at the end of the 19th century. Jane Cunningham Croly, an early woman’s club movement historian, wrote in the late 1890s that the typical member was “a wife and mother, alive to means of culture, interested in all means of progress, and eager to seize and multiply opportunities for individual and collective advancement.” She credits these early clubs with “elevating the entire social and intellectual atmosphere of their communities.”
At first, the Woman’s Club of Madison programs centered around literature, history, music, art, and culture. However, after a presentation by Samuel Sparling in November 1900, the agenda changed. Sparling, founder and executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, alderman, and university political science instructor, spoke on “How May Women Assist in the Government of Our Cities?” He circumvented the role of presuffrage-era women who could only be involved in issues related to the home. After all, what was a neighborhood or a city but a collection of homes?
From this point forward, the Woman’s Club of Madison influenced the civic agenda of the city. The members organized themselves into departments and committees to examine and make recommendations on specific civic and social issues. The philanthropy department added to the effectiveness of the projects the Club undertook with real capital investment.
The Woman’s Club funded the first children’s room in the city’s public library in 1901 and supplied books worth a total of $100. Its members campaigned for annual physical exams in public schools, in-school hot lunch programs, and kindergarten expansion. The Club worked to improve the sanitary conditions of the schools, school yards, and the surrounding areas. Members were instrumental in the building of Madison General Hospital (now Meriter).
As its membership and success grew, the Woman’s Club began discussions in 1899 to seek a permanent home. In 1905, Madison’s 18th mayor, Philip Spooner, donated the Gilman Street land to the Club. The women formed a separate Woman’s Club Building Association and hired architect Jeremiah Cady from Chicago to design their new home. The building cost $32,000 and featured kitchens, a dining room for 250, a 300-seat auditorium with stage, reception room, dressing rooms, and other lecture and meeting rooms. Bowling lanes in the original plans Cady submitted were not built.
The Woman’s Building was completed in 1907. The architecture is a combination of several formal design styles. The Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival styles are represented by the curved gable and the arched windows in the front. The main level of the building on the second floor is typical of Beaux Arts. Decorative motifs in the front and art glass windows on the sides are reminiscent of the Greek Revival and Arts and Crafts styles. The Woman’s Building was designated a Madison landmark in September 2004.
This was the third such clubhouse built in the state. Others were in Oshkosh and Milwaukee. In 1907, following a board meeting of Wisconsin State Federation of Women’s Clubs that was held in the new Madison building, a reporter for the Waukesha Freeman wrote, “The interior decorations and furnishings [walls, ceilings, hangings, upholsteries] are most artistic … the whole effect is remarkably attractive.” The writer went on to say that the Milwaukee clubhouse is “recognized as a profitable investment and has a large place, not only in the club life, but also in the social life of its city.” And so it was with the Woman’s Club of Madison. Its building was not just for the Club’s own use, but for the community as well. The building was used frequently in its early years.
As other event venues became available in the city, rental of the Woman’s Club building ceased. In 1973, the building was sold to the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Reed Design bought the building in 1986 and made extensive repairs, including new floors and HVAC system. Avol’s Bookstore occupied the building until 2003, when it was sold to a developer who wanted to build student apartments. The development was controversial. The Save the Woman’s Building group was founded and landmark status was granted.
In 2008, Samba Brazilian Grill opened in the building. “I like how we’ve kept some of the aspects of the building the same—like the stage and the brick wall in the back,” says Shane Allen, the Grill’s general manager. Appropriately, the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage was celebrated at Samba in 2010.
After nearly 125 years in existence, the Woman’s Club of Madison disbanded in 2017 due to declining membership. But not after making substantial donations to many area nonprofits, including the Madison Public Library, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Historical Society, YWCA of Madison, Veterans Museum, SSM Health, Vilas Zoo, Porchlight, and Three Gaits among others.
Today the spirit of the original Woman’s Club of Madison continues with the Metropolitan Woman’s Club of Madison, a nonprofit started in 1971 with much the same purpose as the first Woman’s Club of Madison. “Our members feel it’s important to continue the mission of scholarships and supporting charities,” says the current president, Peggy Wiederholt. “We award a $2,000 scholarship to a Dane County adult who is returning to college or technical school after a hiatus due to financial, family, and/or work-related demands. One or more nonprofits or service projects within the community are also selected to receive financial support. In addition, our members donate items to Briar Patch and the Early Head Start Baby Bucks program.”
Madison area women today continue to make a difference in the community as they work to improve the lives of others.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.
Metropolitan Woman’s Club
PO Box 5125
Madison, WI 53705
240 W. Gilman Street
Madison, WI 53703