84 – The Women’s Club, circa 1838, Hagerstown, MD

The staid and stately Women’s Club stands guard at the northern end of South Prospect Street, a yellow-painted lady on a street of elegant homes. Now a National Register Historic District, South Prospect Street was not part of the original plat of Hagerstown but was created as part of the 1810 Rohrer’s Addition, the first addition to Hagerstown. When platted, Rohrer’s Addition building lots faced West Antietam Street. However, when the land was first opened around 1832, the buildings turned to face Prospect Street. At that time, Prospect was only one block long and ran from Washington Street to the edge of Antietam Street along a ridge overlooking the town.

Minutes for the Hagerstown council meeting of November 4,1820, state that it was agreed …to Graduate West Antietam Street West of Jonathan Street Commencing on a flat rock in center of street directly opposite the South East Corner of Cathrina Crussingers Lot running with a decent of 5 degrees to Jonathan Street & likewise from the place of beginning with an assent of 5 degrees to top of the hill which will lower the hill seven and half feet. No reason is given for this action, but it was probably another effort to facilitate traffic bringing raw materials from the west to the cities on the eastern seaboard and other goods back. The present Antietam Street has a grade greater than nine percent, which is greater than present day highway standards allow. A steeper road would have been dangerous for wagon traffic.

It is interesting that the Women’s Club chose as its headquarters a building whose history is dominated by women. Rohrer’s Addition was platted in 1810, but apparently not much was done with the land then. In 1831, William D. Bell, John Reynolds and Samuel Clagett paid $3,500 for the parcel of land containing two lots on West Washington Street and the five Rohrer’s Addition lots that faced Antietam Street east of Walnut. Prospect Street was then created along the eastern edge of this parcel. William D. and Susan Bell sold the 41 foot by 240 foot lot on which the club now stands to Susan Hughes in December 1837, for $288. It is believed that the house was built the following year, which would mean that its builder was a woman, quite unusual for that era. In 1844, Susan Hughes sold the property to David Barr, …together with all and singular the buildings, improvements…

Two years later David Barr died, leaving his wife Christina and five children, one still a minor. David Barr left no will and considerable debt. A court case followed, and it was decided that his property should be sold to settle his obligations. Christina agreed to the sale but retained her right of dower. In 1847, the house was auctioned and received a bid of $1,725, at which point two of the creditors asked the trustee to postpone the sale in hopes of getting a better price. The trustee reluctantly agreed, and they settled on a Tuesday as the day when most people would be in Hagerstown, for it was both bank day and the day of the session of the Orphans Court. After advertising several times in the local papers, the sale again went forward. This time, Christina Barr was the highest bidder at $1,500. She had found a way to keep her home. The creditors received 33 and 1/3 cents on the dollar.

Christina’s eldest child Martha had married Dr. John A. Wroe of Washington, D.C., and was living in Washington at the time her mother recovered her Hagerstown home. Martha and her husband returned to live in Hagerstown sometime later. In 1864 Christina Barr died and another court case followed. Ownership of the …two and one half story dwelling house and lots or portions of ground thereto attached situated on the West side of Prospect Street… passed to Martha Wroe, who lived there with her husband and family of ten children. Yet another woman had taken over the property.

The Wroe family were southern sympathizers during the Civil War; and, when General Robert E. Lee retreated from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he and his staff were invited to dinner by Dr. Wroe. The evening almost ended in disaster when one of the Wroe boys became fascinated with the pearl-handled revolvers that the officers had politely left on the table in the reception hall. When the officers discovered their sidearms were missing, the doctor forced a confession from one of his sons, and the boy led the officers to the barn where the guns lay hidden under the hay.

The family also nursed a Confederate soldier who had been wounded at Funkstown. Before he had recovered fully, neighbors who were Union sympathizers had wheedled the information from the Wroe children, and Major McDaniel was captured after a search of the whole house. He corresponded with the Wroes during the two years he was interned at Johnson Island as a prisoner of war and went on to become the governor of Georgia after the war.

A 1947 article in the Daily Mail describes an interview with Samuel Wroe, then 87, one of John A. and Martha Wroe’s children and a veteran of the Spanish-American War. In it he recalled playing tag in a meadow now occupied by the Dagmar Hotel, he also remembered wells on Washington and Potomac Streets where passersby could stop for a drink and described a swamp that once ran almost through the square.

Martha Wroe died in 1905 having spent the last ten years of her life secluded in her house, cared for by her son John and other members of her family who lived in the large house with her. A court case following her death reports that one cold winter seven tons of coal were purchased to heat her room. She was reported to be an invalid treated with Lydia Pinkhams Compound, Pierces Medical Discovery and Miles Restorative Tonic. The property finally passed out of the Wroe family when Emmett and Anne Gans purchased it from trustees in April of 1923. They sold it to the Women’s Club on June 20th of that year. Mrs. Gans was President of the Women’s Club at that time.

The Women’s Club formed in 1921, the outgrowth of a World War I service group called The Forward Club. By helping in the war effort, these women had seen beyond the horizons of their own homes, and they did not want to return to their kitchens. The desire for broader outlets for their talents and the need to be of service to their community led to the formation of the Women’s Club.

The brick building still looks much like the home that Susan Hughes built in 1838. It is constructed in the Federal style, three bays wide with double stairs leading to the central entrance under a small porch. The six-panel entry door is topped with a curvilinear transom. A center hall runs between two elegantly restored front parlors that have marble mantels and eleven-foot ceilings. Reproduction period wallpaper with a wide border trim covers the walls, and antiques furnish the rooms. Directly behind the north parlor, stairs lead to the upper floors. The original stair rail is simple with tapered round balusters. Beyond the stairs is a large, beautifully furnished dining room followed by a smaller dining room and serving kitchen. A banquet table made of several dropleaf tables joined together fills the length of the 30 foot dining room, and an antique sideboard stands at one end.

The south side of the building has small offices and a bath followed by an enormous institutional kitchen. The building terminates in an auditorium that is accessed both by the center hall and by a side entrance on the north.

When the Women’s Club purchased the building, they borrowed $20,000 from the Hagerstown Bank and sold $20,000 in bonds to members to support the project. The purchase price was $13,230. The rest of the money was spent to improve the property to suit the needs of the club. A. J. Klinkhart drew plans. The existing ell of the house was torn down, and a new three-story ell was built using bricks salvaged from the old building. The building committee proudly reported that the interior walls of the original structure were brick, and therefore workmen were able to salvage 45,000 used bricks for the new construction rather than the expected 15,000. The basement was excavated under the entire building, and this stone was used for the foundations of the new wing and a retaining wall at the rear of the property.

This was a bold undertaking for the newly formed Women’s Club, and a vast amount of money for any group to commit; but the ladies intended that the building support itself. There were two rooms for rent on the ground level, …twelve bedrooms with running water and convenient access to bathrooms… on the second floor, and the auditorium with dressing rooms in the basement …which a dramatic section of the National Community Service pronounces a model. The building committee predicted that there would be a waiting list for the bedrooms when applicants discovered that they would have access to a small laundry …where she may freshen her blouses and press her dresses. The auditorium was expected to be one of the most profitable sources of revenue because …the need of such a place has long been felt in Hagerstown.

The plans of the building committee have certainly worked out. There are still ladies occupying most of the 21 rental rooms at modest cost and enjoying the security the club offers so close to downtown. The Girl Scouts no longer meet in the ground level rooms, the beauty shop is gone and the dining room is no longer open to the public. The Potomac Playmakers, which began as the drama group of the Women’s Club, still mount their productions in the auditorium as they have since 1923.

The Women’s Club celebrates its 75th Anniversary of incorporation on September 15th, 1996. There will be events throughout the year commemorating the founders of the organization. Nine 50-year members will be honored at a luncheon in October, a tea and a garden party will be held in memory of the early monthly teas and the fund raising parties. The members of the Women’s Club continue to be good stewards of their charming building and continue to serve our community.

This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, September 8,1996 as the 84th in the series.