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Former Lincoln Woman’s Club building has storied history

by Staff

The League of Nebraska Municipalities wants to demolish the small, dilapidated building at 14th and L streets along with its nearby offices and replace them with a new, modern two-story office building.

But here’s the thing about that yellow brick building at 401 S. 14th St. that dates back to the 1950s: the history it represents goes back more than a century.

A group called The Lincoln Woman’s Club built it, long after they’d organized in the 1890s.

The group grew out of a large number of existing clubs whose members decided they should come together in one group, said Ed Zimmer, retired historic preservation planner for the city.

Local historian Ed Zimmer.

A small group of esteemed women spearheaded its creation, including Phebe Elliott — the first woman ever elected to the Lincoln Board of Education during the same era and for whom Elliott Elementary is named.

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It began with a few hundred members and grew to more than 1,000 in the 1920s and 1930s, Zimmer said.

They were interested in self education and women’s and children’s welfare issues. They led a boycott of milk and eggs when they thought the price was too high, and following World War I, they were the organizing group behind Memorial Drive near Antelope Park.

At the time, Zimmer said, the street ran north and south of South Street and every tree had a plaque honoring the name of the fallen soldiers and nurses, with a giant plaque by Auld Pavilion.

There’s a statue of a pioneer woman at 33rd Street and Sheridan Boulevard commissioned by the club in 1935, said Lynn Rex, executive director of the League of Nebraska Municipalities who has done her fair share of research on the group.

At some point, the club got a historic landmark designation for the building on 14th Street, but in the ensuing years used it less and it fell into disrepair.

By 2008, members had begun renting it out for events, and by 2011 they put it up for sale. The group appears to no longer be in existence.

Former Lincoln Woman's Club building, 2.23

The League of Nebraska Municipalities wants to demolish the former Lincoln Woman’s Club at 401 S. 14th St., which it owns. The building, which had a historic landmark designation, was built in the 1950s.

The League of Municipalities had rented parking space from the club for years, and the organization bought the building in 2014 for $825,000.

The plans for the new office building on the northeast corner of the block bounded by 13th, 14th K and L streets required the League of Municipalities go through a number of steps, including asking the Historic Preservation Commission to remove the historic landmark designation so the building could be demolished.

The commission expressed some concern about demolishing a Lincoln landmark but acknowledged repairing it wasn’t feasible — after a structural engineer looked at the place and members heard testimony by Bob Ripley, the retired administrator of the Nebraska State Capitol, about its poor condition even before the league bought it.

Rex said the pipes burst after the organization bought it, and she knew the damage couldn’t be repaired. A new building will have, among other things, an expanded training room to accommodate leaders from across the state who gather there.

The Historic Preservation Commission approved the demolition, with the caveat that the league commemorates the importance of The Woman’s Club in its new building.

Rex was already on it: She told the commission she’d found 30th and 50th anniversary photos of the group through History Nebraska and a yearbook from 1932-33, articles of incorporation, its constitution and bylaws.

If all goes as planned, work will begin in April and the new building will be finished by the summer of 2025.

Zimmer will help prepare a history of the Lincoln Woman’s Club, and Rex said the League plans to have a room dedicated to the club’s history and significance.

“It’s been a really great story about how women have played such an important role in the city of Lincoln,” she said.

The club was a place for women to gather and organize, a way to speak out at a time when women didn’t have another voice, Zimmer said.

“It was a place active, interested women gathered together and bettered their community when there were far fewer ways for them to do that,” he said. “It’s a step in the development of our society as well.”

A title that packs a punch

As long as we’re talking about women, here’s something I learned about the League of Women Voters.

I was reminded of its importance in the 1970s when I wrote about Jan Gauger — the first woman elected county commissioner in the state in 1972. The League is where she and many other women got involved at a time when they were just beginning to break into the male-dominated world of politics.

But it goes back much farther than that.

In 1920, the year after Nebraska became the 14th state to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, the Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association reorganized as the Nebraska League of Women Voters.

History Nebraska said it signaled a new era in Nebraska’s political life.

Many of the women involved in The Woman’s Club were also involved with the League of Women Voters.

Zimmer, the go-to source for Lincoln and Nebraska’s history, put it another way: the name says to the world that the group is not simply made up of women, but women voters.

“It’s quiet, but there’s a real statement in the name,” Zimmer said. “It’s also a statement that says we’re not going away. Getting the vote was an essential step but we’re not done.”

A financially responsible city

A nonpartisan nonprofit that analyzes cities’ accounting practices ranks Lincoln as one of the top five most financially responsible cities in the U.S.

Called Truth in Accounting, the organization ranks each city based on its “taxpayer burden” or “taxpayer surplus.” A taxpayer burden is the amount of money each taxpayer would have to contribute if the city were to pay all of its debt, and the taxpayer surplus is the amount left over after all the city’s bills are paid, divided by the estimated number of taxpayers.

Truth in Accounting divided cities into “sinkhole cities” and “sunshine cities.”

Lincoln ranked fourth of the top five “sunshine cities,” primarily because of the $62 million in COVID funds the city received and because tax revenues increased. Lincoln also benefited because its fiscal year ends Aug. 31, rather than June 30, when many cities’ fiscal years end. By August, markets had begun performing well, resulting in higher pension investment values.

The group gave Lincoln an overall grade of B, compared to Omaha’s D. The other sunshine cities: Washington, D.C., Irvine, California, Plano, Texas and Oklahoma City.

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Contact the writer at [email protected] or 402-473-7226. On Twitter at @LJSReist.

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