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Its Day’s Gone By : Women Once Packed Ebell Club’s Meeting Hall; Dwindling Membership Has Now Forced Its Sale

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A “for sale” sign hanging on the red-brick wall of the Ebell Club pronounces the end of an era for the city’s oldest women’s organization.

Yet, across the Balboa Boulevard club site, where local activist women have met for nearly a century, another sign asserts the club’s legacy: the Balboa Library--the city’s first library.

Eighty-six years after its formation, the Ebell Club has sold its meeting hall on the Balboa Peninsula. Once a vibrant, growing association that filled the clubhouse, membership has tapered to 35 in recent years, making it too difficult for the club to continue operating its clubhouse with dwindling dues.

“Unfortunately, there are so many young people working now that there are no longer enough people to join the club,” said Marie Cray, president of the club since 1992. The club is the local chapter of the national women-only philanthropic organization.

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“This doesn’t mean the club is disbanded,” the 13-year member assured. “We will continue meeting, and continue doing charitable work.” Members will gather at the clubhouse today for the last time.

When it was just a fledgling organization during the start of the century, women of the Newport Beach Ebell Club were the driving force behind establishing the city’s first public library.

Shortly after the club formed in 1909, the women borrowed a bungalow from one of the club members to meet and to lend books it had acquired from the state. The club eventually bought the bungalow, the site of the current clubhouse.

The club had one volunteer who worked three hours a week to lend 1,100 books. Then in 1920 the city, which had a population of about 900 people, created a municipal library using the Ebell book collection and the clubhouse, said LaDonna Kienitz, city librarian since 1986. The collection moved into a city-built library across the street five years later.

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“We owe them a great debt for establishing the first volunteer library,” Kienitz said. Seventy-five years after the municipal system began, the city now has a central library and three branches circulating close to 2 million items a year.

Over the years, the club has maintained its ties with the library system. Every time a member died “the club donated a book that would tie into the personality of the person,” said Jackie Headly, a former director of the Balboa branch library.

The oldest club in the city, it is named after a 19th-Century European physician named Adrian Ebell, who immigrated to the United States and was at the forefront of extending women’s rights. A group of women formed an all-women’s club in Oakland during the beginning of the Reformation era in 1876. Since then, many women’s philanthropic groups formed and used his name nationwide.

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Throughout its history, the local chapter has raised funds and donated money to foundations that help the blind, abused children, battered women, veterans groups and to drug- and alcohol-use prevention programs. They have also given scholarships to graduating high school students bound to local colleges and nursing schools.

“We don’t give to the same charity year after year,” Cray said, adding that most of the money the club will get from the clubhouse’s closure will go to charities.

Construction for the current clubhouse--which replaced the original turn-of-the century meeting place--began in 1956. A year later, about 250 club members walked through its doors. With a performance stage and ballroom space, the clubhouse hosted cultural events such as plays and musical concerts for members only.

Eventually, the club began renting the hall to other clubs and organizations. For instance, it was at the Ebell clubhouse that the South Coast Repertory launched its first touring production in 1964.

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The club grew so large that it formed a Junior Ebell Club, for women 35 or younger. Today’s junior club has a dozen members compared to five times that number in the early 1960s.

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“The ‘50s and ‘60s were when we were big here,” said Donna Statia, a 40-year member.

“We always filled the room. But it’s hard to do that now,” said Polly Black, a member since 1952. “We never outgrew this place.”

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The new owner of the Ebell building, Charles J. Pifer, is seeking city permission to develop private homes on the property at 515 W. Balboa Blvd.

Reminiscing about the days when members wore their Sunday best to go to weekly meetings will be high on the club’s agenda at Thursday’s meeting.

Smiling, Donna Statia remembered how she used to dress to attend meetings. “It was one of the most enjoyable things,” Statia said after a meeting at the clubhouse Monday while fixing a green felt hat complete with exotic feathers. “We used to get dressed up in hat and gloves and even fur pieces.”

Today, the Ebell women will at least pretend the club is at its height as members don their glamorous hats and dresses.

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“All we can do is laugh as we go out . . . and keep laughing,” Statia said.


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