Norwood Civic Association Solving Many Social Problems.
George F. Willett, a Well-Known Business Man, Has Built Up in Norwood a Civic Center With a Membership of 700, Which Is Doing Much to Wipe Out Class Distinction, Sometimes Found in Manufacturing Centers— The Association Has a Fine Group of Buildings, Extensive Playgrounds, and Instruction in Domestic Science and Sanitary Living Is Given—Mr Willett Hopes to Extend the Work Begun in Norwood to Other Industrial Cities.
By A. J. PHILPOTT.
June 29, 1913
VERY modestly and very quietly there hue been developed and constructed a civic institution in the heart of the town of Norwood, which some people believe Will go a long way toward solving some of the great social and sociological problems that are confronting nearly every city and town in this country.
The plans and scope of this Civic Centre, or Civic Association, as it is called, are so big and comprehensive and have been so carefully and so well worked out that one wonders what manner of man or what forces, operated to bring It to Its present state of realisation.
It seems at first glance like the sort of Utopian dream one reads about In a book like Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” which might be possible in the dim and distant future, but certainly not the kind of thing to be realised in this devil-take-the-hindmost world in which we live at present.
It seems like the work of the kind of person the world calls, in it’s moments of placid self-contentment, a “visionary” or a ‘dreamer”—words which are intended to convey to the mind the fine, practical common sense of the person bring them and the hopeless ingenuousness or unsophisticated character of the other.
Well — just to satisfy curiosity — it might be well to slate right here that this civic enterprise is the work of a visionary, and a mighty practical visionary at that; for it took a man with big, fine vision to frame this idea up and carry It forward, and a man of unusually large caliber to make it so big, so practical and so comprehensive In all of its details and in its relation to the necessities of our complex civilisation.
And also it took a man with a good deal of the enthusiasm of youth in him to do this thing, for there is about it the spirit of hope and strength and optimism that animates healthy young men.
The man who conceived this civic enterprise and pushed it to its present status is George F. Willett of Norwood, 42 years old, of whom you probably never heard, although he is one of the very big business men of this country, with manufacturing and Industrial interests in half a dozen or more States of the Union and with business connections all over the world.
If you are wearing a felt hat he probably had something to do with it, for he is one of the largest manufacturers of felt in the world; if you are wearing shoes with sheepskin uppers he probably furnished the sheepskin as he is the largest manufacturer of sheep-skins In the world; and If you are wearing a woolen suit he probably had something to do with furnishing the wool for he handles a great deal of that natural commodity.
But he is a very modest young man so you probably never heard of him, even though he occupies for his offices the entire top floor of the First National Bank Building in Federal st. and he may be seen most any evening bowling out in the alleys of the Norwood Civic Association in one of the championship teams, or occasionally afternoons out on the Country Club links playing golf, at which he is also an expert.
Not that he given all of his spare time to bowling and golf, for he found time from his recreations and his business cares to show the town of Norwood how reduce its tax rate the past year from something over $30 a thousand to something like $12 a thousand, for which he has been thanked and— well there are some people in the town who don’t wholly approve of a low tax rate.
So much for the man. George F. Willett. and he probably won’t thank the writer for even these few modest paragraphs about himself and his work.
However, it is Inevitable that he, like other man, shall be known by his works, and although he dislikes publicity of a personal nature he cannot very well help coming Into the spot light in the corner of the stage for a few moments while this exploit in which he figures is being related and illustrated.
Mr Willett’s Vision.
Mr Willett long ago saw that a strong line of cleavage existed or was beginning to manifest itself in all industrial centers and that there was danger to the country and to all classes in the widening or deepening of this line of cleavage.
He saw that there were communities growing up inside of communities, more or less foreign to each other, and with friction, misunderstandings, petty jealousies and other things that boded no very great good for the future. The line of cleavage began in the industries and persisted in social life and that seemed to him to be its greatest danger and menace. The growing lack of sympathy between the various groups tn the social fabric seemed to him ominous, and although he was cognizant of the various religious and philanthropic efforts that were being made to meet this growing evil, he felt that none of these efforts were wholly compatible or equal to the emergency.
They lacked the full breadth of the social spirit necessary to cement such widely differing and effusive elements. He felt that what was necessary was full social sympathy that should bring with It a growing sense of social and civic responsibility.
So he conceived a civic center in which men, women and children of all classes In the community could meet for recreation, for acquaintance, for health, education, social betterment, and out of which perhaps something of civic pride would naturally come. It was a big vision and a big undertaking and only a great, successful business man could in this age hope to realize , such a vision.
But here it is: And it is pretty well developed and worked out, although many things remain yet to be done—to be felt out as it were.
Here in the center of the town, bounded by the railroad on one side and by Washington, Winter and Hoyle sts, on the other three sides, is a nine-acre piece of land, on one corner of which has grown a beautiful group of buildings, with gymnasiums for both sexes, entertainment and lecture halls, bowling alleys, billiard rooms, a great swimming pool, shower baths, playrooms for boys and playrooms for girls, recreation rooms and reading rooms, rooms for dancing, for a boys’ brigade and for all sorts of things. And the grounds outside have been fitted up for outdoor games of all kinds—baseball, football, open-air gymnasium and track athletics.
To further emphasize its value it should be mentioned that the meetings are held in the large Assembly Hall; the Board of Trade also meets here, and there are accommodations for those Interested In town planning. housing and other community problems.
On another corner of the grounds Is a large building for social service work, in which there Is a dental clinic, an eye and car clinic, an emergency hospital, fine kitchens and laundries, in which women and girls may be instructed, rooms and sleeping apartments for district and school nurses and all under the supervision of a matron. Miss Elizabeth Ross, well grounded in all the requirements of her position.
Membership of 700.
Briefly that Is what the Norwood Civic Association Includes In the shape of facilities, and it has already a membership of more than 700. It has grown up within a few years so naturally and so quietly that It has not made anything Ilke a sensation—which Is just what Mr Willett desired.
It is not wholly philanthropic however; for that would defeat the dignity and social purpose of the association; but the fees are so graded and so moderate that the benefits of the association are practically open to everybody in the town.
And It Is not religious In a denominational sense, but is Christian In the broadest sense of the word—Christian in the spirit of its brotherhood and in the spirit of Its helpfulness. So that people of every sect and denomination can meet In this civic center on common grounds. And the beauty of It is they do so meet In a common bond of civic feeling that carries with It health and the very best of impulses toward that social unity and fellowship which is the basis of the broader fellowship that makes for State and National conciousness. There are neither sectarian nor race lines in the Norwood Civic Association. and each member takes a personal interest in the welfare of the enterprise.
And there is something of the spirit of domestlc sociability in the very architectural character of the buildings.
There is nothing imposing about them, but there is something of distinction in the very homelike character of the entire group. You do not feel that you are entering some temple when you approach the colonial porch and balcony that graces the modest entrance.
Originally there was a residence house and a barn on the corner of the lot where the civic group has grown. It was one of those simple, dignified residence– of the period about 1850, an outgrowth of the colonial style, and was known as the Everett house, from the family that built and occupied it.
Old Buildings Remodeled.
This old house and barn were remodeled several years ago by a local minister, and used as a sort of social centre in connection with various church activities. It was probably this very work which gave Mr Willett Its primal Idea from which the larger conception grew, for he saw the problems the minister was tackling from a little different angle.
He was familiar with the cold, hard facts of Industrial life, and he realized that any efforts looking to the solution of the problems must have the benefit of the vitalizing Influences of all classes In the community.
So he took over the two buildings, and got an architect to make them the nucleus of a group In which the exterior architectural character should be preserved And the architect has done has work well, for the group has been splendidly knit together, and looks like a great residence from the outside, but inside — well inside It has all been changed to meet the requirements of a civic center.
That old original house would not be recognized by the man that built It— Inside—for it is now a sort of counting room with a curving desk counter, behind which are tables and desks for the young men and women who tend to the actual business of the enterprise, with little offices for the secretary, A. K. Skinner, and the business manager, Walter E. Marshall, and with stenographers and clerks like any business office. Mr Skinner comes from Dartmouth College, where he graduated about two years ago, and was later secretary to Pres Nichols until Mr Willett induced him to take up this work at Norwood.
Mr Skinner’s instincts and training fit him well for this work, and he is in entire sympathy with the idea and is fully conscious of the community problems which It Is intended to meet.
Walter E. Marshall has just the kind of tact and temper that fits him for his position, and he. too. knows well the Ideal which Mr Willett hopes to see realised.
To get the best results In such an in situation three young men must work a guides and helpers rather than as officals for It Is Important that all members should feel a sense of their own personal responsibility in the enterprise; for each member is an owner or shareholder.
Besides these two young men then are two physical Instructors, R. E Gourlie for the men and boys, and Miss Florence M Ross for the women and girls, both eminently fitted for their positions and full of the spirit of their work in which they are engaged.
Many Outdoor Games.
Just to see these two at work on the playgrounds with the boys and the girls is something of an Inspiration. There is a good deal more health, and energy, and happiness among the boys and girls of Norwood since these gymnasiums and the playgrounds were opened and the games and exerciser were directed by Mr Gourlie and Miss Ross.
The physical condition of each member Is tested and the exercises planned and supervised by the physical directors who do the directing In a fine, social way.
But to come back to the building and that central office from which everything radiates. On the left is the great assembly hall and women’s gymnasium. This doesn’t look much like the old barn of the Everett homestead. It has been enlarged and fitted with a fine stage and gallery, and It will easily seat 1000 people. In the daytime and on certain evenings it Is used as a women’s gymnasium; on other evenings it Is used for entertainment, theatricals, basket-ball games, etc.
There are dressing rooms and little reception rooms off the balcony, and there are dressing rooms and lockers and lavatories and shower baths downstairs. It is splendidly equipped throughout, well lighted. heated and ventilated.
On one side Is the physical director’s room in which members are tested and examined and off this Is another building containing the men’s gymnasium, so finely equipped with facilities for hand ball and all of the regular gymnasium practice. It Is large, well lighted, and is In many respects a model of its kind.
Underneath are lockers and showers, whlch connect by subterranean passages with another building In which a great swimming pool 60 feet long, 24 feet wide and from four to nine feet deep, is the principal feature. Overhead Is a glass roofed balcony for running or lounging and to be used by spectators when there are swimming contests and water games.
Off the big pool are shower baths and lockers and all kinds of facilities. The whole arrangement seems well-nigh perfect and certainly no expense has been spared in the construction of the great swimming pool and the vast, splendidly-lighted building in which it Is the central feature.
Coming back from the swimming pool we enter a beautiful little hall finished in white opening on two piazzas. This hall is used for women’s meetings, smaller social gatherings, lectures, etc.
Underneath are the bowling alleys— six of them-two for Women and girls and four for men and boys. They have several championship teams in the aIleys and Mr Willett is an enthusiastic member of one of them.
The trophies of these teams may be seen in the office. Off the bowling alleys is a room with several pool tables and tables for checkers and other games. There is also a reading and lounging room.
Off from the right of the office is a boys’ social room In which are some juvenile games. There are neat settees and window scats in this room. Just beyond, upstairs. Is a girls’ lounging | room and an office, also a game room for girls. On every side in fact there are rooms affording opportunities for meetings of small groups in social games or converse until It would seem as If practically every want had been provided for—all except an opportunity for some light refreshments. But this will probably be remedied so that the members for a merely nominal sum will be able to get a cup of coffee and a sandwich or a glass of milk, a service almost as much needed In the ordinary town as a gymnasium or a swimming pool.
However, just as it stands it is a wonderful Institution—a place in which everybody feels “at home.” The gymnastic work Is as yet the center of attraction, as It well might be, and one of the salutary features of this work is the corrective treatment which is afforded boys and girls with slight deformities.
The gymnasium costumes of the girls are natty, and the way some of these girls kick and play the new kind of football Miss Rosa is teaching them out on the playground shows that young girls are fully as lithe and active as boys of the same age, and just as enthusiastic over healthy outdoor sports.
The Boys’ Brigade has already made for itself a reputation In drilling and marching. “Runs” about the country with the athletic Instructor—or without —are also very popular with the boys. After these runs come the baths and rubdowns and the glow that comes from such exercise and cleanliness of body.
There are some good runners among the boys also and the five lap- track is much used. There are good baseball teams and the material for a good football 11 in the association. The athletic end of this civic centre Is In full bloom.
Now for a glance at the Social Service Home in which Mr Skinner is as deeply concerned as he is in the other work of the association. On the corner of the grounds opposite Everett Hall stands an old double house which has been completely renovated and fitted up with every convenience inside for the new service to which it is dedicated. This Social Service House will in time exert a very healthy influence on parts of Norwood that need the kind of attention and Instruction the house will afford.
Children’s Dental Clinic.
Here Is a dental clinic where children and others may have their teeth examined and attended to; and there Is also an eye and ear clinic with fine professional service In both.
There are rooms fitted up for an emergency hospital, and the visiting and school nurses have living apartments in the houses. There is a fine kitchen and a laundry in which it Is proposed to give instruction that is probably as much needed as any other one thing among certain classes, who will be indeed fortunate in having such opportunities afforded them.
The visiting nurses and the school nurses will easily find the people who will benefit by contact with the Social Service House. The house Is neatly furnished throughout, is well heated and is airy and sunshiny at all times.
Beside this house is another in which the caretaker of the property lives.
It is a very complete plant from beginning to end, but It is only the beginning of a chain of such civic centers which Mr Willett proposes to introduce in every town in which he has industrial Interests in the States of Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. These will be begun as workingmen’s Clubs.
The problem will be first worked out at Norwood In every detail, for Norwood is Mr Willett’s home town, and it has been his ambition for years to begin this work here, and at the same time do something substantial and which would be of permanently increasing value for the town.
He believes that by means of such institutions unforeseen things will follow in the much of the friction and uneasiness and trouble that exists, in all manufacturing communities especially, will be minimized and in time wholly obliterated. .
He Is no different from other employer of labor on a large scale—he has his troubles, but he proposes to do his best to solve them and incidentally he may be pointing the way for others. He doesn’t regard it as philanthropic work, but just as plain, common sense work and good business as well.
A Practical Visionary.
If there are sore spots in a community he wants to know the cause of them and apply the remedy it if it is in his power. And it is possible that many unforeseen things will follow in the train he has started in such generous style. Mt Willett is a practical visionary, but one of the few who has had the courage to realize his own vision. It is only men who are at heart broadly humanitarian that have such vision and the impulse to try to realize them.
There are other good men in Norwood; men who have done much for their own employees, but none have attempted anything on so big, broad and democratic a scale- for this civic association, like the Boston Public Library, is open to all.
The results of this work will be carefully noted by philanthropists and sociologists all over the country, dor there are elements of originality about it which command themselves already to a great many students.