A century ago, a small group of women formed the College Club of Buffalo to give graduates of the prestigious Seven Sisters colleges a place to enjoy cultural, artistic, educational and recreational activities with other like-minded women.
Although the requirements, including that members must have a four-year college degree, have changed over the years, the club has weathered vast social and economic changes. Today the club persists as a place for women to form friendships and continue learning, and its house serves as a physical refuge for students and professional women.
As the club enters its centennial year, members are taking a proud look back at their heritage, and a fresh approach to the future that they hope will include some new members.
For Beverly Thomas, belonging to the club “has provided me with a venue to meet women with common interests and to develop many wonderful new friends. … Someone is always willing to share their knowledge and expertise, or a kind word and a personal memory to help another.”
Located for all but its first two years in a historic red-brick Georgian mansion with white pillars on Summer Street near Elmwood Avenue, the club has provided rooms for women almost from its earliest years.
“The rooms originally were offered to members who were single and who wanted to be away from their houses, which was not acceptable to do in those days – women stayed home until they married,” said Carolann Besch, the club’s president.
Today, the 15 rooms on the upper floors of the mansion are rented to graduate students, to women who live in Rochester and work here, and to women working temporarily at nearby hospitals, including women from Poland, Spain, Iraq and India. Still other rooms are rented by women who have homes but seek solitude to write.
The bright and beautiful mansion is also home to the College Club’s events, including a reception Sunday afternoon that will kick off almost a year of celebratory events for the women and their guests.
The College Club was formed by a group of women who graduated from the Seven Sisters colleges – Vassar, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Smith and Radcliffe. By 1914, the club had 72 charter members.
“It’s amazing to me that there were that many women in Buffalo who had graduated from those upper-echelon schools,” said Besch. “It wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s, when the state colleges became so popular and the majority of women were staying home and going to those colleges, that we changed to accept graduates of them too.”
The club members first gathered in a rented house at 63 Park St., but, according to the club’s history, “full of energy and confidence,” in 1915 they leased 264 Summer St. The house had been built just 12 years before for Philip Sherwood Smith, an attorney who was a director of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the forerunner of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
The house had a $34,000 mortgage in 1915, when the club moved in. “They didn’t have a lot of furniture, so they were looking in their attics and basements for furniture,” said Besch. “They set up trestle tables to serve lunch on until they could afford to buy tables.” During World War I, the club’s Red Cross committee set up sewing machines upstairs, in what used to be the ballroom, and made bandages, socks, sweaters and scarves for the troops. By 1928, the club was booming. A newspaper report of the day said that it had to limit its membership to 325.
“Can you imagine if they all showed up for lunch on the same day?” asked Besch. “I have no idea where they would have put them all.”
In 1927, the club started a scholarship that gave college seniors a $50 loan. The idea continues today; scholarships are awarded to two students annually.
After the financial crash of 1929, membership dropped to 67 women, and, according to a club history, “they came dangerously close to shutting down entirely.”
But the women battled back. Austerity measures, rummage sales and other fundraisers allowed the club to burn its mortgage in 1944. Financial crises in 1997 and in the early 2000s were also overcome.
Throughout all the challenges, members enjoyed interesting, educational and social events. “They had fashion shows, they had balls, they had dances and recitals,” said Besch. “They had musicales and the women performed in them.” At the weekly lunch meetings, the women wore chic dresses, heels and jewelry, set off by white gloves and hats.
The club’s longest-tenured member, Lillian Gondree, joined in 1974 at the request of her mother-in-law, Bertha Gondree. At the time, there was a waiting list to join, and Gondree, like other applicants, had to present a copy of her diploma.
The College Club now has 55 members. “A good majority of us are ex-teachers, not all, but there’s a real group,” said Besch.
Members meet every Monday for lunch and an educational, cultural or artistic program, except for one Monday, when they play bridge. There are other weekly bridge and mahjong games and a monthly book club discussion. One evening a month, there is a dinner program, to which members may bring a guest; many bring their husbands.
“If somebody has an interest in something, we’ll try it,” said Thomas. “A member wants to knit for charity, so we’ll try it. That’s how mahjong started.”
“We had no garden group for quite a while, but somebody volunteered to take that over, so hopefully we are going to get the garden beautified,” said Besch.
Because many of the programs are held during the day, working women may join as associate members at half the annual dues of $350. A college degree is no longer required to join, although members “share a commitment to education as well as an interest in cultural and civic improvement,” according to the club’s website.
As the club’s centennial celebration begins, members are planning events that will include a candlelight commemoration of deceased members and culminate in a dinner in June.
When she was a working mother, Gondree said, “I had very little time to become involved in things, but when I was able to get there, everyone was always thrilled, so happy to see me. It was a very welcoming atmosphere, and it continues to this day.”