The Guild House Hotel on Locust Street in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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One of Center City’s highest-rated boutique hotels has a rich history as an incubator for women’s rights and advancement.

Founded in 1882 by teacher and writer Eliza Sproat Turner, the New Century Guild started out as a group with the goal of supporting working women in Philadelphia.

At the time, women lacked the ability to be full participants in U.S. society. The workforce was beginning to grow more female, but women were still a clear minority.

For the first several decades of its existence, the Guild acted as a hub for women in or planning to join the labor force, where they could take classes, hear speakers, rent a room, or eat lunch. 

Hundreds of women joined, and members included bookbinders, writers, clerks, cashiers, secretaries, lawyers, nurses, and physicians, among other professions. Many, like Turner, were also progressive activists who spoke out for causes like suffrage and better labor protections.

The organization’s role shifted throughout the years, and a descendant of the organization — the Gender Justice Fund — still operates today as a local philanthropic grant-making foundation.

Filling needs as basic as a place to eat workday lunch

Historical accounts of the New Century Guild point out that few 19th century women’s groups were as expansive in their resources and offerings.

The guild, according to a Historical Society of Pennsylvania document, began in response to the popularity of night classes offered to working women. Launched in 1881 by the New Century Club, an activist group co-founded by Turner after the nation’s centennial, the courses focused on things like literature, history, dressmaking, hygiene, accounting, and much more.

Turner started the “New Century Working Women’s Guild” — the name was later shortened — as demand for the classes rose, welcoming “self-supporting women” and others interested in furthering the group’s mission. Class offerings expanded as financiers started to take notice, and many trade-focused courses were later transferred to the co-ed Drexel Institute, which opened in 1891. 

But the group wasn’t only focused on education.

The New Century Guild published its own newspaper, “The Journal of Women’s Work,” it amassed a 4,000-volume lending library, and it hosted lectures, performances, and debates. The organization even offered health insurance and guest rooms to its members, according to the National Historic Landmark nomination form for the guild’s former location. 

A research arm tracked statistics on women’s wages and working conditions, per the nomination form, with the data used to advocate for labor protections at the national and state levels. The Guild also joined pushes for other progressive-era reforms, like in food handling and sanitation.

About a decade into the organization’s life, Turner founded the New Century Trust, which oversaw the guild’s finances and was in charge of securing a physical location. 

The Guild bounced around Center City, first landing on Girard Street (modern-day Lombard Street), then in the 1890s moving to Arch Street, where the Convention Center now stands. In 1906, the group put down roots in a four-story rowhome at 1307 Locust St.

A room in the modern-day Guild House Hotel, dedicated to one of the members of the original guild. (Jason Varney for Guild House Hotel)

Starting in the early 20th century, the Guild started holding a daily event called “Noon Rest,” offering inexpensive weekday lunches in an all-female dining room to working women. The popular meal was “simple” but “transformative,” explained Farrah Parkes, executive director of the Gender Justice Fund.

“This was a big deal for women working, because you’re working, you needed to eat lunch,” Parkes said. “But women — proper women — didn’t go to public places like restaurants by themselves.”

The Locust Street location, added to the National Historic Registry in 1993, remained in the possession of the trust until 2018. It’s now home to the Guild House Hotel, an “invisible service” boutique hotel that pays homage to its history. Each room is designed to reflect the life of one of the Guild’s members, and the rooms include a book that recounts their stories.

A handful of people with connections to the women’s group have paid a visit to the hotel, which opened in 2021, owner Brennan Tomasetti told Billy Penn.

“There’s certainly some people that come back to visit because they knew what it was,” Tomasetti said. “But [for] the majority, it’s a new experience and a new learning for them.”

The gender justice fight continues

As of 1995, the Philadelphia Daily News reported that the New Century Guild, still around, had started accepting men. It had around 175 members, though most weren’t “working women,” but rather women who’d retired from their careers.

Today, the New Century Trust lives on as a private foundation, which rebranded itself in 2020 as the Gender Justice Fund.

Per Parkes, the fund’s executive director, the trust existed mostly as a social club in the latter half of the 20th century. But the organization has focused on “charting a new course” within the past decade, she said.

The Gender Justice Fund aims to “[target] systems of oppression,” per its website, using a model of trust-based philanthropy that offers multi-year funding and support to organizations working in areas like economic justice, gender-based violence, reproductive justice, and criminal justice.

The organization, Parkes said, thinks of gender justice “in terms of all people who are oppressed on the basis of gender.”

It also aims to pursue a “much more expansive version” of what the founders of the New Century Guild did, she said — noting that stated support for “women in the workforce” during the progressive era usually meant support for white women in the workforce.

New Century Guild founder Eliza Sproat Turner in 1880. (New Century Trust records, Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

“The women who founded the organization, and who advocated for worker rights and for suffrage were certainly revolutionary for their time,” she said. “But we can … over a century later, look back and say, there are ways in which there were pieces missing.”

The nonprofit operates four grantmaking programs. One of them is the Trans Resilience Fund, which started in 2021 as a one-year effort but has been extended — “a huge opportunity to move money to groups that had historically not been funded,” Parkes said, especially on the local level.

Parkes emphasized that, though the New Century Guild’s work in the 19th and 20th centuries was influential, it’s important not to think of the fight for gender-based rights as just historical.

She’s had conversations with people who talk about gender-related issues as if they were all resolved in the past.

“Things have changed, thankfully,” Parkes said. “But … the issues that led to the organization’s founding are still very real and still very present, and still need people’s time and attention.”

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Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...