History of the Engineers Club Building and Site

By Mark Martel

 

A (pre) historic site

Dayton settlement began in 1796 almost precisely where the present-day Engineers Club now sits. The very first boat traveling up from Cincinnati landed here. Some accounts claim the first person to step on dry land was Catherine Van Cleve Thompson, destined to be the great-great-grandmother to the Wright brothers. One piroque, or flat-bottomed boat, was “re-engineered” to become the first temporary shelter at St. Clair and Water Street, now Monument Avenue, at the other end of the block from today’s Engineers Club of Dayton.

 

The rich river bottomland had attracted farming centuries before whites arrived, as archaeologists have relearned at the nearby Sunwatch Indian Village site. Long before GPS, this juncture of five rivers proved an easy-to-locate strategic point of navigation.

 

Two of the first ten cabins in Dayton rose on this same spot. Pioneer resident Daniel Cooper homesteaded the east half of the present club’s site. That’s only fitting, as he also happened to be an engineer who surveyed the settlement and later built water-powered mills and distilleries. The western half of the site was a men’s dorm owned by a General Brown, retired from the war of 1812. The Engineers Club stands on lots 5-8 of Daniel Cooper’s original platting.

 

Dayton was wilderness to begin with, a collision of cultures. East of Cooper stood the Van Cleve cabin on their “in lot.” The father farmed his nearby “out lot”; until he was scalped there. When the suspected Indian perpetrator was caught, his hand was cut off. Some time later Indians gathered in front of the house in a menacing manner. A daughter escaped out the back of the cabin to alert men at Newcom’s tavern on west Main.

 

Starting from zero

At the dawn of the 20th century, the city of Dayton was much like today’s Silicon Valley—a confluence of engineering talent, Progressive politics, and strong individuals. The “city of a thousands factories” led the US in patents. It pioneered the City Commission style of government, with a civil engineer as city manager, invested with greater powers than the actual mayor.

 

Then the worst local disaster ever struck. The Great Flood of 1913 killed over 360 residents, and caused over $2 billion in damages (in today’s dollars). Many lost everything.

 

The city could have withered. Local industries could have abandoned Dayton and sought higher ground. Instead something extraordinary happened. The collective brain power behind those thousand competing factories banded together to rebuild their city and tame the river for good. Dayton became a technocracy, led by its most capable scientific problem solvers.

 

 

National Cash Register (NCR) was instrumental in flood rescue and later recovery efforts, raising $2.15 million. Assistant General Manager (and engineer) Edward A. Deeds was put in charge of the flood prevention program and saw completion of the innovative dams of the Miami Conservancy District.

 

While at NCR Deeds had hired an exceptional young engineer, Charles F. Kettering, to help electrify the cash register. The two struck it rich, assembling a “Barn Gang” of moonlighting engineers into the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, or Delco.

 

Thirty years prior, Thomas Edison had created the first industrial research lab. The idea spread like electricity. As Deeds put it, “men ought to hunt together,” and he and Kettering replicated this group concept in many forms. Deeds helped create McCook Field, which grew into the Air Force’s main R&D lab, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Delco was sold to GM, founding the General Motors Research Corporation with Kettering in charge.

 

After their initial Delco success, Deeds and Kettering organized another group, a forum for engineers from across Dayton. On Feb. 20, they proposed an Engineers Club to the local technical community so that Dayton’s engineers and scientists could have the “educational advantages and fellowship facilities they had so greatly missed in their earlier days.” Members and potential employers (like Deeds and Kettering) could also evaluate one another more freely.

 

Initially the club met in a house owned by Delco a few blocks away at 2nd and Madison. But both club and Delco quickly outgrew the arrangement. Within five years a new club building rose at 110 E. Monument, funded by Deeds and Kettering.

 

The site was near “ground zero” of the flood, and may have been available due to the resulting damage. Deeds’ involvement with The Miami Conservancy District, which built right across Jefferson St., may also have factored into the site selection.

 

A New Building

The local firm of Schenk and Williams designed the club building, and also supervised construction. The architects included the latest city steam heat and ventilation, with automated valves and regulators plus electric lighting. They built well, knowing they would hear about any problems. They were members.

Still, the work wasn’t perfect. Long-term deficiencies in the roof truss design have led to repeated problems in recent years, addressed as funds become available. A Roof Fund has been established to plan for full replacement.

 

The reserved Orville Wright broke his perennial silence, speaking publicly at the opening on February 2nd, 1918.

 

To get things rolling quickly, Deeds and Kettering paid for the building themselves in excess of $300,000 and subsidized its maintenance and operations for the first decade. By then membership had grown to the point that the club could be self-sufficient. Talk about self-starters!

 

High tech fixtures

The new club building incorporated a number of innovations. A built-in master vacuum cleaning system bore similarities to Orville Wright’s self-designed system at the Wright mansion, Hawthorn Hill. A pneumatic system synchronized the club’s clocks through a bellows, which advanced the minutes & hours via suction or puffs of air. Buttons for the servant enunciator network are still visible around the building.

 

Postwar Peak Years

Even before the building was erected, prices rose. In 1916 lunches jumped to $0.35! Five years later membership had expanded to include those who worked with engineers, and women were granted most club privileges. The club soon installed its first “wireless” or radio set, and the new library shelved its first thousand books.

 

Aviation also found a pioneering home near the club. Directly across the river McCook Field became the first military aviation test field. There early aviator Harold R. Harris became the first to use a parachute successfully, landing in a grape arbor in North Dayton. This was fortuitous since he also later flew under the Main Street bridge…upside down.

 

The Club served unofficially as the initial “Officers Club” for McCook’s Army Air Corps officers. Along with Deed’s leadership, this interchange of aviators and engineers may have helped foster McCook as the Army’s chief R&D center for aviation, later to shift to nearby WPAFB.

 

In 1925 a cozy Barber Shop was installed upstairs off the Loggia porch, overlooking the airfield across the river. All members, wives and children could get clipped at “usual city prices.” It is unknown how many women trusted their locks to the club barber. The fastidious and private Orville Wright found this the perfect place to get a trim while observing the progress of aviation.


Weathering the great depression

In 1929 the club title transferred to the members with an estimated value of $405,000. The library by then held 3200 books. With the onset of the depression, membership dropped by 10%. But the club survived, and by the 1936 had accepted its first female member, Maude Gardner.

 

During the same years Charles Kettering co-invented Freon 12 refrigerant gas, and several other members worked on related technology at the Frigidaire plant in town. So it was fitting that air conditioning was installed in the club in 1937.

 

During the same period the lower level was developed as the French & Italian rooms.

 

WWII

By the time of Pearl Harbor membership had climbed to 1000 members. Though war rationing restricted vacations and celebrations, the club found ways to provide some fun and relief to the growing membership working on the war efforts. See the related slideshow for some examples.

 

A Costly Crisis

January of 1985 saw sudden flooding of the club building from top to bottom. A bitter cold snap broke a third floor water pipe, which flowed down through the floors, destroying the club’s last pool table and much carpeting, peeling paint but miraculously missing the south wing, library and wooden paneling in the Ivory Room. Fortunately the club carried good insurance. The adjuster estimated $30,000 damage initially.

 

Renaissance 96

Other long-term problems would call for larger efforts. By 1996 the Foundation was positioned to accept tax-deductible donations for the required renovation. This involved revising the Foundation’s charter to allow for financial interaction with the club property and still remain within IRS regulations for a non-profit. An earlier success at the Masonic Temple pointed the way.

 

Soon a full $3.5 million building restoration was underway, a joint effort of Club’s Board of Governors and the Foundation called Renaissance 96. Between this and a follow-on Renaissance II program, the restoration/modernization touched all areas of structure and grounds including structure integrity, assessing hazards like lead paint, a complete electrical modernization, enhanced security, and making a conversion to internal steam heat due to a DP&L phase-out downtown.

 

Another half million dollars are needed to complete restorations. The most pressing concerns include replacing the roof, upgrading third floor electrical system, restoring the Library and relocating staff offices to the east basement. Also planned are new carpets and drapes, fixing the dining room window walls and doing a full stage upgrade of the auditorium.

 

For renovation details see Jack Darst’s first-hand account: Facilities Changes over the Years

 

Historic Recognition

In 2007 a team of club members, architects, librarians and national park rangers applied to have the Engineers Club of Dayton building placed on the National Register of Historic Places. On Oct 17, 2007 their work paid off. This recognition should help publicize and protect the structure indefinitely. Their application makes for compelling reading.

 

Future plans

 

Foundation History

The non-profit Engineers Club of Dayton Foundation formed in 1972 with 501 (C) (3) tax-exempt status. Its original mission was to spread knowledge of science and engineering, sponsor public meetings and make grants to students. Beginning with $5400, within five years its net worth grew to nearly $27,000. See the 1977 Annual Report

 

By then the Foundation was co-sponsoring yearly all-day Edison-Science Youth Days for Dayton and area high school students, contributing to the Dayton Museum of Natural History and the Honors Seminar of Metropolitan Dayton, and making a $500 grant to a college Engineering student. A web search reveals that one recipient passed on the favor by teaching college math.

 

More recently the Foundation obtained and supplemented an Engineering and Science Foundation  grant to provide Math and Science Teaching Workshops to approximately 300 Miami Valley teachers in 16 school systems.
 

Education and community outreach

Over the years the Foundation has supported:

Local science fairs, TechFest for primary grade students, Teachers Science Seminar, the Kettering Fund for outstanding senior Engineering student, awards for technical papers by undergrad and graduate student, Rube Goldberg Contest, The Science Enrichment for Minorities program, teacher support programs, Mathematics Collaborative, the Odyssey of the Mind and Women in Engineering – a weeklong experience for high school women, STEM Initiative –FoosBlast 2008, and Ropewalk documentary film.

 

The Ropewalk film is among the most successful education projects sponsored by the Foundation, having won state and national awards and online distribution through Netflix. Over 500 free copies were sent to schools, museums, libraries, historical societies and sail training tall ships.

 

The new Dayton Innovation Legacy project will tell the stories of Dayton’s unsung inventors and innovators. It is currently accepting donations to help collect, preserve and communicate these stories through a multimedia website.

 

Enlarged mission for the Foundation

After the 1995 water damage to the Club building the Foundation added historic preservation to its mission. Foundation-sponsored public educational events held at the Club helped meet the new charter and make the club eligible for funds. Soon an endowment was also established to save for a rainy day.

 

Foundation funds have since been used to update the Club’s electrical system, lighting, and to install boilers. We have washed and cleaned the building exterior, painted, performed a building review, and begun a long-term roof fund.

 

Roof Fund

There is a pressing need today to finish building renovations. Otherwise regular maintenance issues could begin to snowball. We particularly need to raise funds to replace our aging roof.

Concurrently the Foundation seeks to build the endowment to achieve permanent financial viability.

 

Infrastructure improvements are need to…

 

Sources for further reference

Dayton Metro Library Local History Room Online

Lutzenberger and Montgomery Picture Files

Edward Roach – NPS/Dayton Aviation Htg. National Historical Park – prepared the application to list the Club building on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Engineers Club of Dayton Members

Thanks to the officers and trustees of the Foundation for their cooperation and support. Thanks also to these Club members for their assistance with this online history:

 

Staff – Serving for over 25 years, Receptionist/Secretary Brenda McQueen has witnessed much of the club’s history.

 

Club Library – Open to members

The Engineers Club retains a fascinating history of itself in newsletters, scrapbooks, member directories and other records, thanks to the former presence of a club Librarian.

 

Newsletters from the earliest issues are in the scrapbooks (below). The Dayton Metro Library contains bound volumes of Engineers Club newsletters from the mid-1940s through about 1980, as well as related literature. This collection nicely overlaps newsletters kept in the Club library, which includes a few scattered copies from the 1950s through the mid-70s, plus near-continuous issues from the mid-1980s to the present. Notable: the Valley of the Giants series profiled prominent members, running between 1985 through 1999. Company profiles also ran in that period.

 

Amazingly, most newsletters survive from the dawn of the club up through the present. Notices of speakers, dinners, picnics and other events reveal a group with style and panache who had a lot of serious, first-class fun over the years. Perennial hot topics include engineering, national touring speakers and what’s on the menu. The history also inadvertently records our changing society, the roles of women and minorities, Even the ads, graphics and editing styles reveal much about the times, membership and newsletter creators. And then there’s the eternal parking problem.

 

Scrapbooks contain newsletters, club correspondence, speaker notices and misc. literature from club origin through early 1940s. This nearly overlaps newsletters at Dayton Metro Library.

 

Printed Member Directories covering different decades can be found in the club library and at the Dayton Metro Library.