In 1913, members of the Ladies Literary Club decided to buy property for use as their clubhouse. The Club had been meeting since its founding in 1878 when Sarah Smith Putnam noted that Ypsilanti needed a literary society similar to one she belonged to in Kalamazoo. Mrs. Putnam agreed to be the first president while Mrs. John Watling served as the vice president. The club functioned as a learning society. For most women education ended with eighth grade or high school. Others may have had a few years of college. Learning opportunities for women remained few. The Ladies Literary clubwomen developed courses of study on the French Revolution, the English Tudor system and its aftermath, then on to study the societies of early Greece and Rome. Early meetings were held in members’ homes and as the club grew it became clear that a larger meeting space was needed. The Club met in the Library of the Arcade Building and later in the Masonic Temple. Shortly after the turn of the century, more thought was given to having a home of their own. There were a number of challenges to reaching this goal. First, they needed to find a suitable property whose owner was willing to sell. As it happened, the Grant property on Washington Street was put up for sale. One of the oldest buildings in the city, it was built in 1842 in the Greek revival style. The asking price for the house was $3,000, a considerable sum particularly since the interested purchasers were a small group of women. Elijah Grant moved from Connecticut to Ypsilanti about 1834. As early as 1835 he secured considerable acreage along the “Detroit to Toledo strip.” He went on to make a great deal of money in real estate. As a result, he had the resources to provide an elegant home for his family. He and his wife Mary had one child, a son they named Edward. After Elijah’s death in 1850, Mary and Edward stayed in their home on Washington Street. According to 1870 Census records, Edward and Mary were living in their home on Washington Street. There were three additional residents; one was a servant. Edward never married. Some said it was because his inheritance was threatened should he marry while his mother was still alive. Mary died in 1883 when Edward was 45. Still single, he spent his fortune unwisely and was forced to sell his belongings one by one to meet his increasing debts. Finally, his house was his remaining asset and with more debts to pay, he put it on the market. Here, the ladies saw a lovely home, though in disrepair, that had the makings of an elegant clubhouse. In 1913 women’s rights were limited. Women could not vote nor were they considered favorably by banks in granting mortgages. Some way had to be found to execute the purchase. Clearly Edward Grant wanted to sell quickly. In 1896, Anne Bassett had urged Club members to establish a fund for use in purchasing property. She established a legacy of $200 towards that end. That amount was the seed money used to purchase the house. Mr. Thomas McAndrew loaned $2,000. On December 10, 1913 the Ladies Literary Club approved the purchase of the house. The vote was not unanimous as four women voted against the purchase. The Club incorporated in early 1914 and they held their first meeting in the new Clubhouse in October, 1914. Once the Club took possession they realized that additional funds were needed for repairs. The Club members became active fundraisers, a skill that has persisted through the years. They conducted rummage sales, bake sales, held luncheons and dinners. Some members went directly to individuals who seemed likely contributors. Helen (Mrs. P. J) Cleary used her considerable charm and contacts to solicit funds. She reported that M.S.N.C. President Lewis Jones delivered a $50.00 dollar check to her residence on Christmas morning. It took 14 years to pay off the mortgage. In 1928 the Club celebrated its 50th anniversary and used the occasion to burn the mortgage with appropriate ceremony. The timing was perfect as the nation soon plunged into the Depression. During the 1930s Emil Lorch, then head of the University of Michigan Architecture program took a great interest in the Clubhouse. He called it one of the best examples of Greek Revival Architecture in the entire country. In 1934 – 1935 Lorch assembled a group of architects who proceeded to survey and catalogue the home’s features. As a result, the Clubhouse was recognized by the Advisory Committee of the American Building Survey. It was judged as “worthy of the most careful preservation for future generations.”The survey document and commentary were placed In the Library of Congress. During this Centennial Year Steven Stuckey, graduate student in EMU’s Historic Preservation Program is conducting an update of the earlier survey which will likely serve as an addendum and added to the document now in the Library of Congress. In the mid 1930’s the original metal ceilings were removed and partitions came down. Now the house was more open, better suited for gatherings, with the many windows providing natural light. The interiors were repainted and new window coverings added. Updating the house is ongoing. In January of 1955, a new kitchen was added. Fourteen years later the members began a major renovation and addition to the Clubhouse. This building committee was in the capable hands of Mildred Harris. A preservation architect, Richard Frank, was asked to prepare plans for an addition to include a new caretaker’s apartment, a larger kitchen, additional restrooms and space for workshop activities and storage. The total price for this remodeling was $58,000. This time the ladies had no trouble securing mortgages; two local banks loaned a total of $38,000. The Club had an additional $20,000 to fund the remodeling. In April, 1972, the first regular meeting was held in the remodeled clubhouse. The purchase of the Grant property by the Ladies Literary Club benefited the entire community. It ensured that the house would be maintained. In addition the Club made provisions for rental of the clubhouse by individuals and organizations. The money from the rentals goes directly toward upkeep and repairs of this elegant home. The Clubhouse has been the scene of numerous weddings and wedding receptions, birthday celebrations and memorial services. Eastern Michigan University has used the property for Departmental meetings and receptions. Of course, its primary function is to provide a gathering place for the Club meetings. The Second Century: Expectations: Many of the activities will continue as always. Each meeting is concluded with a formal tea prepared by the members. The tea provides an opportunity to be “ladies,” although the hats and gloves are long gone. Fundraising is ongoing first, to support three scholarships to local young women, and second, to maintain this very special clubhouse. As we begin the second century in our “home,” the Board of Trustees will place renewed emphasis on building the reserves, those funds separate from ongoing operating expenses. If major repairs are needed, the reserve funds could reduce the necessity of borrowing or placing a special assessment on the members. Interestingly, there is a group of members planning a series of “seminars.” This undertaking will provide an opportunity for club members to return to our “roots,” that is, members can gather to learn, discuss and share insights much as Sarah Putman, Sarah George, Rocena Norris and their peers began to do so many years ago. (Peg Porter is a member of the Ladies Literary Club Board of Trustees and assistant editor of Gleanings.)
Photo 1: Sarah Smith Putnam, founder of the Ladies Literary Club.
Photo 2: Sarah George – A scholarship is named for her.
Photo 3: Helen Cleary raised funds for the original purchase of the Clubhouse property. Photo 4: The Ladies Literary Clubhouse at 218 N. Washington Street in Ypsilanti. Photo 5: Emile Lorch Dean, School of Architecture, University of Michigan. He led the 1930s survey of the Clubhouse. Photo 6: The Ladies Literary Club gathered in observance of the Michigan Centennial which was in 1935.