Sunday, June 16, 2024

Libby Bouvier cuts a ribbon Friday at the renovated Cambridge Women’s Center. At left are Judy Norris and Rochelle Ruthchild. All three were present in 1971 at the creation of the center. (Photo: Kate Wheatley)

The Cambridge Women’s Center cut the ribbon Friday on a multimillion-dollar renovation paid for by an anonymous benefactor.

The center in Cambridgeport at 46 Pleasant St. has expanded its square footage with a well-stocked library, art room and kitchen to facilitate cooking classes and nutritional workshops. Additionally, a garden house with a meeting space will provide a serene environment for support groups, community meetings and other gatherings, co-director Marta Lee-Perriard said. The interior has been refreshed from furniture to color scheme and art, and a chairlift, elevator and bathrooms on every floor have been added to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The Cambridge Women’s Center has always been a sanctuary for women, and with the generous renovations, they will now have a very welcoming space and safe space,” Lee-Perriard said.

The work began simply enough, with a donor contacting the center upon learning about a gate that needed repairing, Lee-Perriard said. That became an offer to fund a renovation of the house. (Landscaping and gardening was a gift from Michael Cunningham Landscape Designs of Stoneham.)

Judy Norris, chair of the center’s board, takes part in the Friday reopening ceremony at the center in Cambridgeport. (Photo: Kate Wheatley)

In accordance with the donor’s wishes, the precise amount of the contribution is confidential, Lee-Perriard said.

The center was made possible with another significant gift in 1971, but began with an occupation – a large group of women seizing an underused Harvard building on Memorial Drive, forcing out a male academic and staying for 10 days with demands for affordable housing, child care and education. The takeover “inspired other feminist movements across the country,” according to the center’s online history. During those days, “women led self-defense classes, dance parties and met about strategy. Outside their walls, even more women gathered in support.”

When police were called, the women left instead of being arrested, but got $5,000 – around $37,500 in today’s dollars – from Susan Lyman to put a down payment on the Cambridgeport house. The history is recounted in a 2017 documentary, “Left on Pearl.”

A glimpse of center renovations. (Photo: Kate Wheatley)

The center has served as a gathering place and resource for women in the Cambridge community for the 52 years since with the exception of a three-month pause in early 2020, when the Covid quarantine hit, and a relocation starting in April 2021 to make room for renovations at the Pleasant Street house. Soon the center will close for a week to move back.

In each instance, the center expanded its online services. “We serve about 900 women a year, many of whom are often unwelcome elsewhere,” Lee-Perriard said. “Our goal is to create an environment where women can find the resources, support and strength to overcome obstacles and thrive.”

This includes people experiencing domestic violence, homelessness, poverty, mental health issues or discrimination, as well as people simply seeking connection and personal growth. The center has services ranging from counseling and support groups to workshops, educational programs and social activities.

The center was filled Friday with energy, anticipation and lively chatter with attendees that included supporters, staff, volunteers and members of the community gathering to see the renovations unveiled. Among the speakers and participants were Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Libby Bouvier, Judy Norris and Rochelle Ruthchild – activists who helped make the center a reality in the 1970s.

This post was updated July 20, 2023, to correct the date renovations began at the Pleasant Street location.