Sunset Club (Seattle)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 6/14/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10708

The Sunset Club of Seattle is a private women's club with deep ties to its city's history, tradition, and culture. The club was founded in 1913 by women from some of Seattle's most prominent and wealthy families, many of them fairly recent arrivals from the Northeast and Midwest who sought to replicate the elegance and culture of those older and more established areas of the country. Two years later, the club constructed a stately colonial-style clubhouse on Seattle's First Hill, expanded in 1921 and the club's home for nearly a century. The club's stated purpose was to promote the social and intellectual welfare of its members, which it did through luncheons, teas, balls, lectures, arts performances, and other events. Club members also engaged in charitable work, particularly aiding service members and veterans during the twentieth century's two world wars, and many individual members have made significant professional and charitable contributions to their city.

Beginnings

The Sunset Club had its birth in 1913 when Seattle was beginning to feel its future with the success of the early pioneers and the arrival of newcomers from the East and Midwest whose desire for more elegance changed the city's lifestyle. One of these newcomers was Susie Wegg Smith, from Chicago, who gathered a group of friends in her home at 912 Minor Avenue in March 1913 to discuss the possibility of an elite private club for women. Those in attendance were the wives of some of the city's most prominent and wealthy men: Mrs. William Bigelow (1847-1938), Ella Maria Durgin Clise (1862-1933) (Harry R. Clise [1859-1919]), Mrs. Wallace G. Collins, Mrs. John Eden, Mrs. John Edwards, Laura Turner Green (ca. 1870-1974) (Joshua Green [1869-1975]), Mrs. J. C. Haines, Susan Johnson Henry (1856-1921) (Horace C. Henry [1844-1928]), Mary Lowman (1861-1939) (James Lowman [1856-1947]), Mrs. William McEwan, Mrs. Alexander Stewart, Harriet Overton Stimson (1862-1936) (C. D. Stimson [1857-1928], Mrs. F. S. Stimson, Mrs. Charles Spooner, and Mrs. Henry Whitney Treat.

Shortly thereafter, on July 17, 1913, the club was incorporated with 122 charter members. They included a small number from Puget Sound's pioneering families, but the majority had come more recently from the Northeast and Midwest. Ten were foreign-born, and four came from southern states. The purposes of the club were to insure the social and intellectual welfare of its members and to acquire a clubhouse or club rooms and other property necessary for those purposes. Bylaws were written and a board of 15 trustees was established. Membership was limited to 300 and was by invitation only. There were strict rules regarding communication between members and employees: No gratuities were allowed, and inducing servants to leave the club's employ was forbidden. Resident members had to be more than 18 years old and to have lived within 25 miles of Pioneer Square for at least six months. The name Sunset was chosen, possibly because of Seattle's far-west location, on the sunset side of the nation. The peacock was chosen as the club symbol.

The Sunset Club's early meetings were held in the Adrian Court Building, the first concrete structure in Seattle, designed in 1907 by Stephen Jennings. It was located at 911 Summit Avenue on what later became the site of Swedish Hospital. Edna Wilson, who had lived there with her husband, Seattle Post-Intelligencer publisher and former U.S. Senator John L. Wilson (1850-1912), sublet her apartment to the ladies of the Sunset Club. They rented the furnished rooms for $150 a month and enhanced them with their own fine linens, silver, and other accoutrements. Elegant buffets, teas, and musicales were held in these quarters. For intellectual development, speakers were invited to discuss topics that ranged from the conditions of government to missionary work with Japanese immigrants.

A Permanent Home

It did not take long for the women to begin negotiating for property to build a permanent clubhouse. Two club members made a significant contribution to the purchase of property at the corner of University Street and Boren Avenue, near the downtown core but, more importantly, in the midst of homes of early city leaders and many members of the club. The club engaged the services of Joseph Cote (1894-1957), a Canadian who had assisted in the design of St. James Cathedral. He was also the architect of the Perry Hotel (later Cabrini Hospital) and several Seattle public libraries in his partnership with W. Marbury Somervell (1872-1938).

The new clubhouse was completed and ready for occupancy on June 23, 1915. Aloof and stately, the brick building, with its gable roof, fanlights, bracketed porches, and painted trim, exhibited an American colonial architectural style reminiscent of many clubs in the older and more established Northeast. Reports of its opening described the elegant interior with its railings of mahogany, Persian silk rug, Chippendale chairs, crimson draperies, potted palms, and velvet-covered chairs and davenports.

This was the backdrop of the organization to further the advancement of the highest standard of womanhood in public and private life. Toward this end, in addition to teas, luncheons, musicales, and plays, there were lectures from authoritative speakers and book reviews to broaden the intellect, a topic one member expanded upon:

"This is a vigorous age. Are we, because we live in the West to be left behind? Are we to hang our heads when we visit clubs in larger cities and hear the brilliant women there speak upon subjects of which we know nothing? ... Why should we not have debating societies, French teas and drama readings within this fine club? ... It seems of so little value to you who have yet to travel our road, who have yet to leave behind your complexions and figures, when I say that when all these lovely youth-gilded beauties are gone, there is still left mind and heart and charm, charm that never dies" (Spaeth).

Service During World War I

A focus beyond themselves came when club members readjusted plans and priorities as America entered World War I in 1917. Possibly the first organization in Seattle to offer its services for war work, the Sunset Club formed a Red Cross Auxiliary, fabricating gauze bandages and surgical shirts, and knitting trench caps, mittens, and scarves for the men overseas.

Individual members made visits to the hospital at Fort Lewis and arranged Christmas gifts and a Christmas tree for the wounded men there. Money was also raised to pay for food for one of the hospital wards. Sunset Club president Susie Smith was appointed chair of the seven-state Northwest region of the National League for Women's Service, an organization for volunteer war work. At war's end a committee was formed to assist city efforts to aid returning veterans handicapped by war injuries.

Later, a memorial of 150 trees purchased by the Sunset Club was planted by the Seattle Garden Club along the Tacoma Valley Road, with a formal dedication conducted by city officials from Seattle, Tacoma, Kent, and Auburn on January 29, 1922.

Expansion, Prohibition, and Depression

Architect Joseph Cote was called upon again, in 1921, to plan expansions and changes to the clubhouse. An addition called the Assembly Room was equipped with a dance floor, a proper stage, and dressing rooms. With the enlarged new space there were more lectures, travelogues, and dance performances, and for a fee other organizations deemed acceptable could use the space on Wednesdays.

One of the first performances was a dance recital featuring Cornish School pupils. The relationship between the Sunset Club and Cornish was close. Burton James (1888-1951), at the time drama department chair at Cornish, designed the Assembly Room's stage and lighting at no cost to the club. Two club members, Agnes Anderson (d. 1940) and Jeannette Skinner (d. 1952), were among the prominent Seattleites who raised funds for the Cornish School building at Harvard Avenue and East Roy Street that opened in 1921. Nellie Cornish (1876-1956) reciprocated by offering the talents of her students and the school's increasingly renowned faculty.

The Sunset Club felt the Depression years of the 1930s, and there was a steep decline in membership, from 400 to 275. But the remaining members tightened their belts and continued with their programs, keeping costs -- but not the quality of performances -- low. In addition, they were busy working to repeal Prohibition. The National Women's Organization for Prohibition Reform was formed in 1929, and the state's advisory board consisted entirely of Sunset Club members.

World War II and Beyond

Once again during the Second World War members of the Sunset Club individually and collectively assisted the war effort in numerous ways. There were knitting projects and manufacturing of surgical dressings as during the earlier war, and in addition extended and more sophisticated services. Through their fundraising, club members were able to furnish three recreation rooms at the Jefferson Park Army Camp and a suite at the Red Cross local headquarters. Members purchased more than $300,000 in war bonds and staged a Christmas event for the 200 men in "their" ward at the Fort Lewis hospital. Tea dances were given for naval aviation cadets and courtesies were extended to officers and their wives stationed in the area. At war's end the women gleefully leaped into more lighthearted activities, one of which was a white-tie-and-tails formal debutante ball. This Christmas Ball became the highlight of later social seasons and was often reported in the soon-to-disappear society pages of local newspapers.

The club's beautifully maintained building was constantly being upgraded, repaired, and refurbished, even as discussions were held regarding its future. In 1974, Leo Adams (b. 1942), a member of the Yakama Nation and one of Washington's most acclaimed artists, created chinoiserie painted panels for the ballroom. The deep peach background of the panels was echoed throughout the interior of the clubhouse.

Parking was a growing problem as members moved to other areas, many of them to the wealthy, rapidly growing communities east across Lake Washington. There were suggestions to relocate the club, but instead property at Seneca Street and Boren Avenue was purchased for parking.

Twenty-first Century

 As members looked forward to their centennial year, many felt that memories of their older sisters should be recorded. A "Living Treasures" project was launched, videotaping the recollections of longtime members and past presidents.  

Despite the attacks of September 11, 2001, members continued to travel even though it required inconveniences. Many journeyed around the world, enjoying stays at reciprocal clubs in faraway places.

The club held a mother-daughter tea for the first time in 2001. Membership requirements were adjusted, with a minimum age of 30 and a requirement that members live within 40 miles of the clubhouse.

By then lack of diversity was an issue: All club members were Caucasian, from various ethnic backgrounds, but none were African American or Asian American. The issue was resolved to an extent with the addition of a small number of members of African and Asian descent.

Centennial Year

In celebration of the club's 100th anniversary, souvenir note cards, centennial wine, and collector scarves were created and sold to support centennial events held throughout 2013. The year opened with a centennial luncheon program entitled "Courage in Corsets." Shanna Stevenson, from the Washington State Historical Society, presented a slide show and lecture concerning women prominent in the state's suffrage movement (in 1909 Washington became the fifth state to give women the right to vote). Many of the women mentioned had ties to families of club members.

Luncheons and dinners highlighting topics relating to the past 100 years were held during the following months. There was a luncheon featuring 100 years of fashion, dinners with Seattle historian Paul Dorpat (b. 1938) discussing Prohibition and Leonard Garfield of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) speaking on the Klondike Gold Rush, and one devoted to 100 years of song. The year ended with a sold-out gala celebrating the centennial of the Club's founding.

Members' Contributions to the City

Although the Sunset Club is primarily a private club dedicated to offering its members entertainment and education in a beautiful and gracious venue, over the years its individual members have contributed in multiple ways to the betterment of the city. There are too many to enumerate, but below are samples of their gifts of time and money.

The Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus was endowed by Susan Johnson Henry and her husband in1928 and was the city's first public fine-art exhibition facility. Katherine Agen Baillargeon (1901-1991) assumed an important position as the only woman on the Seattle Art Museum's founding board. Catherine Collins Clarke (1895-1979) was a founder of the Junior League of Seattle and Roberta Frye Watt (1875-1963) authored Four Wagons West, a classic of Seattle history. Dorothy Stimson Bullitt (1892-1989) engineered creation of the first network television station in Seattle, KING-TV. Bertha Landes (1868-1943) was the first and only woman mayor of Seattle. Frances P. Owen (1900-2002) contributed her expertise as board member of the Seattle Public Schools and Mary Gates (1929-1994) was a University of Washington regent for 19 years.


Sources:

Barbara Stenson Spaeth, Sunset Club History, 1913-1998 (Seattle: Sunset Club, 1998); Sunset Club Centennial History, 1913-2013 (Seattle: Sunset Club, 2013); "Bridge Dinner at Sunset Club," The Seattle Times, March 11, 1925, p. 16; "Sunset Club's Calendar Is Filled," Ibid., September 26, 1926, sec. 6, p. 2; "Dinner Party Arranged for Son," Ibid., October 13, 1928, p. 5; "Sunset Club Offers 'Mozart' Tomorrow," Ibid., February 14, 1933, p. 10; "Yule Spirit Pervades Luncheon at Sunset Club," Ibid., December 21, 1939, p. 10; "Seattle Madame Presidents Keep Clubs on Even Keels," Ibid., October 20, 1940, society section, pp. 1, 4; "Popular Seattle Girls Are Partners for Cadets," Ibid., August 22, 1943, , society section, p. 1; "Center of Hospitality," Ibid., magazine section, July 22, 1951, p. 6; "Sunset Club 20 Years Recalled," Ibid., January 24, 1960, sec. 5, p. 4; "Sunset Club Will Carry Out Founders' Wish," Ibid., June 2, 1963, p. 6; Celeste Louise Smith and Julie D. Pheasant-Albright, Private Clubs of Seattle (Charleston: Acadia Publishing, 2009); Dana E. James, Shared Walls: Seattle Apartment Buildings, 1900-1939 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2012); O. Casey Corr, "A Champion of Male Society," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 7, 1985, p. C-1.


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