By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald
— The Women’s Club, at 420-5th Avenue So., was built in the early 1880’s for the George Curtis family. It is an ornate Queen Ann Style brick mansion, with beautiful gables and jutting dormers, and has been an eye-catching mainstay for many decades on what used to be called Clinton’s “Avenue of the Elms.”
George Curtis was the founder of Curtis Brothers woodworking industry, which flourished in Clinton for exactly one century, (1866 to 1966). He was “the business brains” of the outfit, and he brought his brother Charles and their Uncle George to town to help him, as they possessed the necessary physical skills. Brother Charles eventually would live in another Fifth Avenue mansion, at 417 (now apartments), and their uncle at nearby 402-6th Avenue So.
George Curtis was Clinton’s second U.S. Congressman, (1892 to 1896); Judge Aylett Cotton was the first; Bernhardt and William Jacobsen were 3rd and 4th, respectively. His massive congressional chair is still located in the foyer of the home. He desired to have his elegant home built with the finest materials and craftsmanship available. Each room features exquisitely carved woodwork, the lumber for which is said to have come from different forests around the world. The millionaire patriarch, who designed much of the house himself, brought skilled artisans from Europe to do the woodwork. Many family furnishings remain. There is a black teakwood settee in the hallway that was made in Japan. Above it hangs the Curtis family heraldry, complete with ancient armor, sword, lance, javelin, and battle-ax.
After the home was completed, Curtis had Josiah Rice, a noted local architect, design a coordinating coach house. Both were sold to the Clinton Women’s Club in 1925, for the nominal price of $25,000. This group endeavors to preserve and maintain the property as best their limited financial resources allow. To provide income at the outset, they made several rooms out of the former ballroom, where carefully screened “maiden ladies” used to live, but that is now rare. Over time, the upper floors have been painstakingly redecorated, many with period pieces, and only recently opened for public viewing. Tours and special events are hoped to eventually replace lost rental income.
The Curtis mansion was intentionally designed for the numerous parties that would be held within its spacious confines. The west side portico allowed direct access from high carriages at the proper level, four or five feet above the driveway. Guests would enter via the dining room, then use a small elevator to ascend to the mansion’s third-floor ballroom for festivities. More recently, that elevator shaft was converted for use as an air duct. However, the elevator car remains located in the shaft and may be viewed at the uppermost level. The mansion has six furnaces, one serving one-half of each of three floors.
Like most Victorian mansions, indoor servants’ quarters were upstairs by the back staircase; outdoor help had rooms above the stables, which were quite nice for the times. The Curtises might have had a half-dozen members on their domestic staff at any one time, who were all overseen by the butler. Any problems noted by family members would necessarily be reported to him.
The home’s enormous kitchen was the center of much activity. There was a huge locker for cooling meat, complete with a place on top for ice … which melted and trickled down between metal sheeting, keeping the large locker extremely cool. In these “waste not - want not” times, all the cooled water would be accumulated at the bottom of the insulated vault and then be shunted to the basement, where it was stored for laundry use. Additional ice was delivered and placed into the icebox via an outside door. All the original sinks and cupboards are still in use.
The mansion’s veranda (front porch) has been reconstructed three times, due to sinking and settling which occurred on the corner. When the second porch was built, in 1940, a semi-circular glass-roofed solarium was eliminated. In 2002, Mike Kopp reconstructed the porch for outdoor entertainment in a style suited to the overall tone of the mansion. The sinking problems were rectified at that time also.
Mr. and Mrs. Curtis had four children, three boys and a girl. One boy and the girl died in infancy, which was a common occurrence in those days. The sons later built other mansions at the end of 5th Avenue in 1921 (Eugene’s still exists, and George L.’s was destroyed by an arsonist in 1967). One of their sons, also a George (the fourth so-named), built a little-known mansion off of 2nd Avenue (circa 1935). He was the last of the famous family to reside in Clinton.
In the 1880’s, trees were needed for shade along the boulevard. They were taken from the islands by Andrew Bather and associates and planted near the street. The old elms grew so large that their branches formed a canopy over the street, while their root systems buckled sidewalks below, causing them to look like pedestrian roller coaster rides by the 1940’s. Clinton’s awesome Giant Elms, were ravaged and slowly destroyed by Dutch Elm disease during the 1960’s. Trees Forever, in conjunction with Bickelhaupt Arboretum, just replanted the area with three types of disease-resistant elms in 2005, in honor of the city’s Sesquicentennial Celebration.
Tours of this lovely legacy are an extremely pleasant experience, and the Women’s Club sponsors many seasonal events throughout the year -- all of which provide good value to the customer as well as a source of funds to maintain the home and grounds. Donations and bequests are also accepted and much appreciated.