Editorial: Amherst Woman’s Club thriving as it celebrates 125th anniversary

  • The front entrance of the Amherst Woman's Club. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/16/2018 7:19:59 PM

It is comforting in this fast-paced world driven by technology that the 125-year-old Amherst Woman’s Club is not just surviving, but thriving.

The club has completed a major, four-year renovation of its home, a 19th-century mansion at 35 Triangle St., where it will hold an open house from 4-6 p.m. Friday.

That is 125 years to the day after the club was founded on May 18, 1893, when Amy Barnes Maynard invited women living in Amherst to gather at her home on the campus of what was then called Massachusetts Agricultural College.

That was a time when women were just beginning to seek public places to meet, regardless of their social status, says Libby Klekowski, the club’s historian. Early members appreciated the Amherst Woman’s Club because it emphasized intellectual activities as well as community service.

That mission, “to foster the interests of its members in literary, scientific, musical, historical and other topics of vital importance; to promote culture and cordial personal relations among women; and to contribute to the welfare of the community,” continues today.

The Woman’s Club now has about 100 members who during most of the year meet twice a month at 1:30 p.m. Mondays for a variety of cultural and academic programs. This year, topics ranged from climate change and national security to the riddles of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, while performances included duets and solos from Broadway musicals.

The activities have continued during the renovation of the Hills Memorial Clubhouse, which was built in 1864 by Leonard Mariner Hills, an Amherst hat manufacturer. Renowned Hampshire County architect William Fenno Pratt designed the Italian villa-style home. Among Pratt’s other enduring buildings are The Evergreens, now part of the Emily Dickinson Museum on Main Street in Amherst, and Northampton City Hall.

The Hills family used the house, known then as The Hedges, as a full-time residence or summer home until 1922, when Alice Maud Hills left it in her will to the Amherst Woman’s Club. Though her exact reasons for bequeathing the house to the club are unclear, “She obviously would have had a connection or else wouldn’t have left it to that group of women,” Klekowski says.

Eventually, the club also received a $10,000 endowment left by Alice Maud Hills to establish a renovation fund. “Part of the charge of Mrs. Hills’ money is to maintain the house, and we have done that,” says Cathryn Lombardi, chairwoman of the club’s restoration committee.

Four years ago, the Women’s Club decided to modernize the building, including installing a new heating system, switching from oil to gas, and adding central air conditioning on the main floor. That work was prompted by high heating bills and radiators that needed substantial maintenance.

Ronald Keith Construction of Hadley also fixed imperfections in the plaster, sanded and polished the building’s wooden floors and put up new William Morris wallpaper, similar to what would have been on the walls in the middle to late 19th century.

Klekowski says accuracy in the details was critical. “We felt strongly that we wanted it done right.”

The outside of the main building was painted, the roof on the carriage house was repaired and the driveway was resurfaced.

Current members say they want to continue the club’s successful history in Amherst. “We were very fortunate that the legacy from previous members and times gone by over 125 years gave us the wherewithal,” Lombardi says.

The Hills house also is a resource to the community, available to rent for meetings, weddings and receptions. There is room inside the main building for 50 to 100 people, and for 125 wedding guests with a tent erected on the grounds.

“It’s nicely set up for a small wedding in a Victorian house,” Lombardi says.

The Woman’s Club also continues its charitable mission, raising $5,000 for philanthropy every year. It gives two $1,000 scholarships to Amherst Regional High School seniors, and distributes money to a variety of agencies, from the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst to Safe Passage in Northampton.

It is commendable for any organization to survive for 125 years. For the Amherst Woman’s Club to remain 100 strong and true to it mission is especially noteworthy. We hope the community turns out at Friday’s open house to wish the club well as it starts the next chapter in its history.

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