VOL. 128 | NO. 177 | Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Nineteenth Century Club Prepares to Fade Away
By Bill Dries
No matter what happens to the old mansion that has been home to the Nineteenth Century Club for most of the 20th century and all 13 years of the 21st century, the club itself is about to go out of existence.
The future of the Nineteenth Century Club, much like the old mansion it has called home for years, is in limbo.
(Daily News File)
But the organization, just like the house, is in a kind of limbo in the wake of the Friday, Sept. 6, ruling by Chancellor Walter Evans. Evans upheld the club’s sale of the site and the building’s demolition by its new owners. Evans, however, stayed carrying out the ruling until Sept. 20, anticipating an appeal by the plaintiffs, who filed suit to stop both.
The stay also keeps in place a hold on the money from the sale. The club’s leaders had donated most of the proceeds to The Children’s Museum of Memphis after taking care of their own expenses. That means the Nineteenth Century Club’s own end as an institution is also on hold.
“People forget that for three years this organization tried to come up with options for this building,” said Art Quinn, the club’s attorney in the case. “For three years it was under the thumb of the environmental court. The club’s membership was dwindling. They were having financial problems. In 2010, they stopped having fee-generating events in this building. There was no option they could come up with. … The leadership literally cried when they made the decision to sell this building.”
Before it came to 1433 Union Ave., the club was part of the wave of reform movements at the end of the 19th century, the wave before E. H. Crump Jr. became mayor in 1910.
The reform movements were a reaction to the political power that saloon-keepers in particular had in the city’s ward system of representation. But the political struggle was about more than who held the power of local government. Also at play in the civic discussion were issues including future growth of the city that are familiar to present-day Memphians – the city’s violent image and high crime rate, the gap between rich and poor, and the monumental health problems that plagued rich and poor alike in a city that was just emerging from the worst of the yellow fever epidemics in 1878.
The club’s name fits right in with the other civic organizations that led the efforts – The King’s Daughters, the Sunshine Society, WCA and the Anti-Saloon League. Their names now seem strange and part of an ancient approach to civic involvement.
The reform movement at the start of the 20th century was not only a movement of wealthy women; it was rooted in the city’s Protestant denominations, the churches attended by the city’s wealthiest and most-influential citizens.
Before the club moved into the mansion in 1926, its members did not yet have the right to vote.
In his “Biography of a River Town,” Gerald Capers included the club in a passage about how the wealthy lived at the start of the 20th century in Memphis.
“One’s children attended the private educational institutions, then more numerous than the inferior public schools, while one’s wife joined the Nineteenth Century Club where she became a ‘new woman’ by studying village life in India and Egyptology,” he wrote.
William D. Miller was less dismissive in his book “Memphis During the Progressive Era.”
He described it as “the women’s organization without peer.”
It had study departments in the arts, literature, drama, philosophy and music – and its members presented papers on all of those topics at its original home in the old LaSalette Academy at the start of the 20th century.
But there was another side to the club that included working to secure a police matron to handle women prisoners at the county jail, and the club helped establish hospitals for the treatment of tuberculosis, which remained one of the city’s most-persistent health problems well into the 20th century.
Miller said the club and other women’s groups embraced new ideas, including women’s suffrage that included not only giving women the right to vote but running women candidates for the school board.
Current president Lynn Heathcott, during her testimony at the trial, credited the club establishing the city’s first public playground.
Miller credits the club with not only getting the first public playground built but leading the way for the eventual establishment of Memphis Juvenile Court.
In “Cotton Row to Beale Street,” the definitive business-history book of the city, author Robert A. Sigafoos puts the club in the forefront of non-government civic organizations that had influence with Mayor Rowlett Paine in the 1920s and prompted Paine to create the city planning commission.
“In the context of the early 1920s it was a radical step for Memphis,” Sigafoos wrote.