A fundraising tradition in Lyon Park

January 13, 2011

In the 1920s, the residents of Lyon Park were determined to raise the funds to finish their community center. A developer contributed $500, but $1,500 more was needed. Residents donated $25 or more each to become lifetime members of the Lyon Park Community Center Committee. When construction costs began to rise, a fundraiser produced $800.

Today, the Lyon Park neighborhood is again fundraising for its community center, although this time, the residents need $700,000. But like 85 years ago, they are doing it as a community.

Bake sales, gala celebrations, bingo nights, resident leadership gifts paired with matches from employers and other fundraisers have brought in about $328,000.

"Our charge was to raise as much of the money through our neighborhood," Natalie Roy, president of the Lyon Park Citizens Association, said.

Lyon Park has about 2,440 households, including apartment buildings, whose residents have access to the center and a surrounding 2.5-acre park at North Pershing Drive and Fillmore Street.

Residents have been working on the community center's building plan for more than a year. It includes new bathrooms, widened doorways and a sunroom, all accessible for people with disabilities.

"A lot of the infrastructure in this place is old and needs to be replaced," said Kathleen McSweeney, a building committee member, explaining the cost. "We have an obligation to make sure the community house is here for generations."

The 1925 committee's motto in its original constitution read: "A social, civic and recreative center; so democratic as to attract the humblest; so wholesome as to appeal to the exclusive; so broad in scope as to bring youth, maturity and old age into closer companionship to the benefit of all."

That motto was taken into account as the plan developed, said Elizabeth Sheehy, a member of the fundraising and building committees. The building is used for about 450 events a year, with events as varied as community meetings and weddings, but primarily the center "had become a very child-centric building," she said.

Because the historic homes in Lyon Park, many built in the 1920s and 1930s, are small, the group worked to come up with a plan that would make the center "an extension of our living room," Sheehy said.

The first renovation plans that were drawn up were not agreeable to many in the community, which led to a host of workshops and meetings to come up with a plan that took all of the neighbors' suggestions into account, yet another nod to the neighborhood history.

In 1934, community members were divided over a proposal to build tennis, croquet and horseshoe facilities, Sheehy said. The community opted out of the plans.

The 1930s residents "recognized the community center as the heart of the neighborhood," Sheehy said. "And if it was going to cause a lot of grief, you had to take that into account." So the current renovation plans were thoroughly hashed out to make sure everyone agreed on them, she said.

The tin ceiling will be re-stored and wood paneling that lines the hall and stage will be re-moved, said McSweeney. The original kitchen will be redone as a family bathroom, and the 1970s-era kitchen addition will be reworked to add sunlight and make better use of the space, she said.

The association has many photos of events at the center, Roy said, but others are sought for a larger display on the neighborhood's history.

"Arlington is a very interesting community. The neighborhood pride is very strong," said Michael Leventhal, who helped the Lyon Park residents work historic preservation of the old building into their renovation plans. "Despite it being a small county, there are no municipalities within the county. The neighborhoods take on an interesting sense of importance."

Leventhal said he thinks the community's capital campaign will be successful, using in-kind donations for the construction and applying for grants to help bridge funding gaps. Most government funding options are unlikely because of budget constraints.

The community center and surrounding neighborhood are on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, but there is no local designation.

The fundraising committee is starting to gear up its capital campaign to raise the remainder of the money through donations and other charitable giving, Roy said.

Bernard Rostker, who lives across the street from the center, said although the initial design didn't have as much participation, "it turned into a wonderful project over the last two years. It involved a lot of our neighbors.

"If we do as well as the founders, we'll get another 100 years out of it," he said.

For information, go to www.lyonpark.info/donations .

g oodmanc@washpost.com

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