Maybe you or your friends were married here, or attended a meeting at Oak Park’s Nineteenth Century Club, across the street from Austin Gardens on Forest Avenue. But what is that building? What goes on there?
The Landmark building is owned and managed by one of the community’s oldest and most vibrant organizations, The Nineteenth Century Charitable Association. The Association is much older than its building, constructed in 1928 and designed by architect James L. Fyfe.
Founded in 1891 by forward-looking women, the organization ensures that their spirit lives on today through commitment to charitable service and public education spearheaded by women and men vital to the fabric of the community.
Association president Carol Conboy leads the multidimensional association into its 125th year.
“We award grants to not-for-profit agencies of all sizes in Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park, to help them realize the services they provide to residents across the board, in terms of their ages, needs, and income levels,” Conboy says. “Last year, grants helped fund music camp scholarships for middle school students; iPad Minis for the OPRF Day Nursery to enhance literacy development; support services for domestic violence prevention; and health education for developmentally disabled young adults, among others.”
The Association also grants college scholarships to Oak Park and River Forest High School graduates to help qualifying recipients cover the costs of college education.
“We typically award 18 annual scholarships with a total value of $22,500,” said Agnes Cecala, scholarship chair. “Just as important, we stay in touch with our students throughout their college years and monitor their progress. It’s exciting to see them become young professionals who give back to our society.”
In addition to its charitable donations, the Association offers a range of educational and fine arts programming to the community that’s practically unparalleled in a community our size. At least weekly during the academic year, programs cover topics of art, literature, music, science and the humanities.
“Our programs capture the cultural diversity and love of learning that’s so evident in Oak Park and its surrounding communities,” says Amy Brinkman, vice president of programs. “We pride ourselves in truly offering something for everyone, and particularly strive to emphasize the history and culture of Chicago and the expertise of local professionals. Our events are regularly listed in local print and online newspapers, and our website.”
Looking forward to more cooperative endeavors that enrich the experience of living in and around Oak Park, Conboy comments, “We continue to increase our collaboration with other local organizations. In the past few years alone, we’ve offered meeting space to promote the works of other socially oriented groups, such as the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Guild of Oak Park, Future Philanthropists, OPALGA [Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association], Oak-Leyden Services, PADS [now known as Housing Forward], the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce, the Village of Oak Park, and many others for meetings, performances, benefits and recognition events.”
The Association leverages other promotions to serve the needs of a wider range of residents. For instance, members participated in a Jewel Stores receipts-for-kitchenware program to collect and redeem stamps for hundreds of dishes, pots and pans that they then donated to local organizations including Sarah’s Inn and PADS. They’ve also rounded up and donated myriad canned foods, personal products, toothbrushes and paste, cookbooks and other items to local food pantries, the Infant Welfare Clinic and other nonprofits.
“The Nineteenth Century is a home where we can use our life-honed skills and talents,” says Georga Parchem, a member for more than 12 years. “This place is where we gather with good friends, old and new, where we work hard and do good things for our community. I am part of this place and this special group of people.”
“It all started when my neighbor, Mila Tellez, drew me in to help re-start the contra dance series at the Nineteenth Century,” says Randi Woodworth. “That evolved into the English Country Dance series with me as the organizer. One of the things I love about English country dancing is that its very essence is about making personal connections among the dancers and seeing those connections blossom into a community. I became intrigued by the organization, by the personal connections that are made there, by the community that is created there, and by the benefits that are extended to the broader community. ‘Hmm…, I thought. This is right up my alley.’ At this stage of my life, I intend to stay planted. I am committed to the life I have in Oak Park, the Nineteenth Century has become an important part of that life, and I look forward to many years of participation alongside my fellow members.”
Stewarding a Landmark
In 2013, the Nineteenth Century launched Facelift for the Future, a three-year campaign to raise $500,000 to restore and renovate its Landmark building. Campaign chair Nancy Waichler announced, “Our historically significant building was showing the effects of time and weather and needed extensive work. The exterior work to preserve the building is almost complete, and the building now appears as generations of Oak Parkers remember it. Next, we’ll begin the interior renovations.”
Renovation work includes increasing the building’s energy efficiency and ability to serve community needs in the decades to come. To date, members and friends have raised more than $400,000 through donations and pledges.
The building is an active place. In 2014, more than 30,000 people attended 325 events held in the building. Of these, 75 percent were hosted by local nonprofit organizations.
The Association invites other nonprofit organizations to use its historically significant building regularly on a space sharing basis. Each year, it expands its goal of serving as a unique community center and incubator for local nonprofits.
“Since 1891, our organization has focused on learning and giving. Because of the support we have received from our members, friends, and the business community, we will be able to continue this focus into the next one hundred years,” says Conboy.
The Nineteenth Century Charitable Association welcomes visitors to its Monday afternoon and evening programs, and to its many special events.
“We always welcome new members!” says Kathy Moran, vice president of membership. “Membership is open to all—men and women—who value the relationships we all build together through volunteering and social activities.”
The building is available for private event rental, proceeds from which help maintain the Landmark building, provide cultural and educational programming for surrounding communities, scholarships for local high school students, and space usage in our building by other nonprofit organizations.
For more information, a program calendar and to contribute to any of the funds – Scholarship, Benevolence, or Facelift for the Future – please visit www.nineteenthcentury.org.
Photo courtesy of the Nineteenth Century Club.