The Heritage and History of the St. Petersburg Woman’s Club

How It All Began

St. Petersburg Woman’s Club began because Mrs. Benjamin A. Greene moved here from Evanston, Illinois, where she served as president of her Federated Woman’s Club. She missed the wide intellectual and cultural interests, its civic participation and charitable concerns, as well as her club’s social events. She was rebuffed in her attempt to start a woman’s club here since most people thought the Women’s Town Improvement Association, engaged in establishing Williams Park and the Audubon Club, were enough for this small city (US Census of 1910 – population 4127). Nancy Greene then gave a series of lectures on Mormonism. At the conclusion she was urged to provide more similar intellectual entertainment. It was then that Mrs. Greene started St. Petersburg Woman’s Club with 14 chartered members. The date was February 7, 1913.

Throughout 1913 club programs were on women’s suffrage, state laws in regard to women and children (since only 15 states gave parents equal rights to their children), immigration and its effect on the country, social welfare, lives of famous women, child labor, the Pope and the Vatican, travel talks by members and famous guests, legislation about public health, parenthood, aiding more traveling libraries for use in the state. They worked with other clubs in the city “to determine what sanitary requirements shall be demanded of the bakeries” and visited them and reported.

In November 1913, it was announced 5 of 9 bills urged by the women had been passed by the State Legislature. From the start, the club tithed, giving one-tenth of its income to civic and charitable causes. At the meeting of December 18, 1913 called “Housekeeper’s Day”, the discussion was on iceboxes, handling milk after delivery, danger of flies, typhoid vaccination, domestic science courses in college.

What a busy and momentous year they had! They even battled the city about turning off the gas/ curtailing service to homes and fought to stop spitting on the sidewalks. The first anniversary luncheon on February 5, 1914 had 75 members present. The address was on “Civil Service Reform”. They planned for study to be on the Seminole Indians and Parliamentary Laws. There was continuous Bible study.

The War Years

St. Petersburg Woman’s Club was the first club in the State to begin War Work, with their Belgian Relief in 1915 exceeding all clubs. They worked closely with The National Red Cross. Locally they worked for better sanitation for Negroes, child welfare, aided tubercular patients, took care of individual needy families and constantly worked for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment promoting women’s suffrage.

Hospital and war work were continuous. Mrs. Greene became Mrs. Charles A. Esterly in 1917. During that year, Mrs. Esterly called the initial meeting of what became the local Red Cross, drawing many of its officers from St. Petersburg Woman’s Club.

There was always support for the National YWCA, but “St. Petersburg was not large enough for a local branch.” Undaunted, in February 1918, women’s club members enlisted 150 girls as members of the National Patriotic League, which early in 1919 became the city YWCA. The Christmas Concert in 1918 had over 1000 in attendance.

Growth and Change

In 1921 Mrs. Esterly became Honorary President of the St. Petersburg Woman’s Club for life. The club Collect was adopted and the club motto, “Each for all and all for humanity. We cannot all serve alike but we can all serve willingly and well”. A building fund was established in 1922 and a limit of $20,000 was set for the purchase of a clubhouse site. Membership was more than 400 in January of 1923. St. Petersburg Woman’s Club officially became a member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs November 26,1923. The club was incorporated on October 21, 1924 allowing it to own property.

They started the year of 1925 with 764 paid members and held meetings in hotel ballrooms. In January of that year, the club used the Coliseum for their meeting. Attendance was 1200 for guest speaker Princess Cantacuzene, Countess Spiransky. She was an American author and first-born grandchild of Ulysses Simpson Grant and Julia Grant, born in the White House during her grandfather’s presidency.

Benefit card parties were begun on December 17, 1925 at the Huntington Hotel for the clubhouse building fund. Clippings from 1926 and 1927 describe the club balls held at hotels as “Brilliant social events”.

Club programs varied often featuring famed speakers from states and abroad and they continued classes in languages, philosophy, psychology, arts, current events and sociology. The annual luncheon on January 20, 1926 at the Vinoy Hotel featured Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Paid membership on February 25, 1925 was 818, the largest club in the state.

Throughout the mid 1920’s the search continued for a site for the clubhouse of which they dreamed!

We Build!

Most envisioned a clubhouse on the waterfront, near 3rd or 4th Avenue N but several houses and lots were considered and discarded. By April, 1927 there was $11,000 in the building fund. In November of 1928, C. Perry Snell made a gift offer of land on Snell Isle! The land was beyond the streetcar line, in the jungle and reached by a one lane rickety, wooden bridge – an isolated spot. The offer was accepted after much debate. The deed is dated December 24, 1928.

Mrs. Katherine B. Tippetts, a member of St. Petersburg Woman’s Club served as president of Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs 1926-1928. In January, 1929 it was voted to accept a note of $15,000 at 6% from Augusta Bank, Maine, the Winthrop Branch, to be signed by the club president and treasurer and endorsed by Mrs. Murray L. Stanley (newly elected president of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs). By May, 1929 the building fund had reached $16,428.08. Club membership was limited to 600 regular and 150 life members.

The clubhouse dedication was in November, 1929 when the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs held their Fall Board Meeting there. Mrs. Stanley, Federation president, paid tribute to “Mrs; Wendell P. Slayton, club president, and to all those in the past whose 16 years of untiring effort and faith had brought it about, and the Mr. C. Perry Snell, by his gift of the beauty spot”.

A condensed treasurer’s report, 1929-30 shows the expenditure of $30, 490.64 for building & equipment and $3791.58 for furnishings totaling $34,282.22. The club immediately began to convince the city build a new bridge over the bayou and on Christmas Day, 1931 the new bridge opened.

On April 16, 1932 twelve young women formed Junior Woman’s Club as an auxiliary of the Senior Woman’s Club, their sponsor.

Worldwide depression hit the club with declining membership, the closing of the bank where their accounts were carried and only $181.21 in the club treasury. In 1931, membership dropped to 149 paid members. In 1932, The Florida Federation encouraged clubs to carry members unable to pay dues that year. At the beginning of 1933, the club advised the city and Mr. Snell it didn’t want riparian right to their property and couldn’t accept maintenance of the seawall. On December 14, 1933, paid membership was only 81. By April, 1934 the loan was down to $10,600 plus local notes of less than $1000. By 1939 membership rebounded to 366 and a summer janitor was hired for $30 a month. Study classes were renamed The Town Hall Sessions. The mortgage was burned ceremoniously on April 18, 1940!

The Fire

In the early morning of May 24, 1940 the interior of the clubhouse was ravaged by a fire started in the unfinished room over the kitchen which had been planned for a custodian’s apartment. Energetically, members went to work and by fall opening tea in September, the club was repaired. They remodeled with new equipment and furnishings, the apartment was readied, a central heating system installed and the sliding platform put under the stage. Insurance provided them with $1680.00. The oil fired furnace and water heater cost $1445.00. In October, 1940, custodians moved into the free apartment and were paid $50 a month.

Surviving War Again

During the 1940’s the women again shouldered the varied activities of war work while keeping the club alive and growing with courage and vision. As men went to war, women filled in temporarily – like member Jane Lanier who became a welder.

Later, the clubhouse needed re-decorating and a new roof. The club aided the city project of developing a recreational park for Negroes and provided playground equipment for the new Wildwood Park.

The evening coterie was established, providing a pleasurable way for career women to also enjoy club activities. A choral group was formed as the 1950’s began. The club provided medicines to needy children and flags to all the elementary schools in the city. Club membership grew to 788 again. A monthly bulletin was sent to every member.

Classes and programs continued, scholarships were given to Seminole Indians, a fireplace was donated to the Girl Scout Camp and a 15-foot-high cross on a raft was displayed in Mirror Lake during Christmas & Easter.

The club provided materials to build a blockhouse for the Seminole Village at Dania. Equipment was donated to Kathryn Payne Rehab Center and to Mound Park Hospital (now Bayfront Medical Center). A storeroom was built off the patio and car parking spaces provided.

In 1960 new heating & air conditioning was installed and the club assumed a debt of $22,500.00. A community clothes closet was begun. St. Petersburg Woman’s Club won a state Federation award for raising the most money to support Radio Free Europe. They also initiated the idea of St. Petersburg becoming the sister city of Takamatsu, Japan.

1960 – Great Recession – Present

Three days of gala events celebrated our 50th year golden anniversary! Efforts to increase membership paid off by offering bridge & charm lessons, family night programs, drama by a church guild, Know Your America Week and Federation Follies.

Six notes totaling $7000 were paid with sufficient funds in the treasury to pay another note. The club’s folding doors and 70 card tables were re-enameled. A new water fountain was installed. Thousands of garments were delivered to Community Clothes Closet. A defensive driving course at the club was one of the largest in the city. Tuition was donated to two police officers to complete college law enforcement training. Three oriental rugs and new drapes were added to the tearoom. Black out drapes were hung in the auditorium (ballroom) to permit slide presentations and movies. In 1968 membership increased by 110 members!

In the 1970’s  a new record room was completed along with a new sidewalk to the new double entry front door. The club amplifier was replaced, 50 new chairs purchased and doors were added to the long kitchen counter. Additions included matching handrails from the stage, a fire hood for kitchen stove and an electric typewriter. In 1976 the building was completely rewired and additional wall outlets and all new ceiling fixtures installed. A year later a sprinkler system was added. In 1981, the pictures of our past presidents were hung in the auditorium in line with a rekindled interest in our heritage.

During the 1980’s and 90’s women returned to the workplace. Membership began to shrink again. New interest in saving the environment erupted. Through the decades, programs reflected changing times with emphasis on ecology, conservation, equality for all citizens, coping with child and spouse abuse, increased crime, rape, drugs, pornography and lowered moral standards expressed in literature, movies and television. National pride in our space triumphs & technology were presented.

Another war broke out. Club members knitted skull caps for under military helmets. St. Petersburg Woman’s Club was designated as a local, state and national historic place… preserved for generations to come!

A copier, computer classes, email, cd player, digital cameras, lock box providing 24-hour club access, light dimmer switches, sound system upgrades with new surround sound speakers, microwave, convection oven – all additions for the new millennium. In 2005, the club began and sponsored a teen division GFWC St. Petersburg Juniorettes. Snell Isle Civic Association and donors provided funds to replace & storm proof the arched windows in the tea room. In 2010 our ladies’ room was renovated with vacuum flush toilets and faux granite vanity top. Members began sending text messages on cell phones.  The club has staunchly held true to our founding objectives, evidencing social conscience, civic responsibility and educational progress along with cherished ties of friendship. We continue to preserve the past while planning the future!

The Author

Clare Brown Williams Shank, club president from 1974-1976 (now deceased) researched, planned and wrote most of the copy for the Heritage section of our webpage. It was excerpted from a club booklet she completed in 1981. She was an active club member for three decades.

The past presidents in fall, 1981 wrote, “She (Clare) brought honor to us all when President Eisenhower called her to Washington to serve as the top woman in the Republican Party organization in the post of Assistant Chairman (now called co-chairman) of the Republican National Committee and Director of all women’s activities nationwide. No Floridian has to this writing achieved so high a rank in the structure of either major Party. Famed for her organizing talents and for her platform charisma, her duties required her to travel the country, enthusiastically mobilizing, speaking and fund raising, so effectively done that she received numerous awards and decorations for outstanding public service. She was a distinguished guest speaker at each National Convention of the GFWC throughout her tenure from 1958-1964 and was a delegate from the club to each such convention.

“Clare Brown Williams Shank wrote, “This booklet is dedicated with admiration to all those who went before us, bequeathing us this sterling heritage; to my contemporaries who share the warmth of friendship, the stimulus of broadened intellectual horizons, the gratification of worthwhile civic and charitable work, and the fun of social events – all of which is ours as members of this proud Woman’s Club; and to our future sisters who will build upon all the accomplishments of these years portrayed for posterity within these covers.”