In 1985, American teenagers packed theaters to watch director John Hughes’ coming-of-age drama The Breakfast Club. That same year, the Lake Forest Chapter of the Infant Welfare Society (IWS), a very different type of club, initiated the Lake Forest Showhouse & Gardens, an extravagant and wildly successful phenomenon that in 30 years has raised more than $3 million dollars for the Angel Harvey Infant Welfare Society of Chicago Health Center. The Breakfast Club and the women of the IWS cross paths this year when Hughes’ 11,000 square-foot Lake Forest mansion serves as the location of the 16th Lake Forest Showhouse & Gardens.
Lanie Camino, a member of IWS for 38 years, recalls the beginnings of the Showhouse. “Jone Gedge suggested the idea of a Showhouse because it was a popular idea on the East Coast. That first year we really were just flying by the seat of our pants. Our costs that year were $50,000 and our profits were $50,000 so our profit margins have certainly improved. We also had to work really hard to recruit designers because the concept was so unfamiliar,” she remembers. “Now, we have to turn designers away.” Camino vividly recalls many rooms from the 15 previous Showhouses. “Alessandra Branca did a bedroom in one of our earliest Showhouses that was just stunning. It was awash in apricot tones. I never wanted to leave that room.” As Branca was one of the original designers in the 1985 Showhouse, Camino is thrilled about her role as the 2015 Honorary Showhouse Chair.
In 1985, the IWS numbered 40 women. In response to the demands of the Showhouse, the organization’s bylaws were later amended increasing the membership to 85 women. Leslie Dhamer, a 12-year member of IWS, will be finishing her stint as IWS Board President in June, shortly after the Showhouse closes in May. “I’m ending with a bang,” Dhamer laughs. While Leslie was a teenager, her mother, Ashley Maentz, chaired an early Showhouse. “At that time I had no idea I would be following in her footsteps. The wonderful thing about this organization is that mothers were involved and then down the road their daughters or daughters-in-law became members.” Other IWS members with generations of service include Jennifer Mower, Camino’s daughter, and Laurie Ward, daughter-in-law of former member Margo Ward. Dhamer’s role as a Showhouse co-chair was unique in the organization’s history. “In 2011, the seven-person Executive Committee decided to chair the Showhouse on Green Bay Road. This was a first in our organization’s history. I loved it; we all loved it! The seven of us still get together for dinner, drinks, coffee, lunch, or whatever we can. While we knew each other from IWS, during the Showhouse we all just really clicked!”
Diane Grumhaus joined the IWS in 2004. One of her earliest responsibilities was coordinating the Showhouse volunteers. “That was so long ago that nothing was computerized. I had white boards in my dining room with flow charts slotting people in. We sent volunteer requests out in the mail and awaited their responses back.” IWS now uses an automated volunteer system, Volunteer Spot, to handle the huge task of coordinating volunteers during the Showhouse’s three-week run. “We are running a business, but we are all volunteers,” Grumhaus says. “When I was in charge of marketing, people who promote for a living would ask me for our marketing plan. I would have to remind them that I was a Montessori teacher by trade and a volunteer by choice.”
Kristine Adams, one of the six co-chairs of the 2013 Showhouse, applauds the IWS’ members’ efforts. “It’s actually mind-boggling to see what all goes into the project. When we sign the contract, we essentially become homeowners of a mansion. There are so many things to consider from parking to security to garbage collection to housekeeping. My head spins with what we are able to accomplish; it is really an amazing group of women. And along the way, thanks to the talents of our designers and the efforts of our members, the Showhouse has grown from just something interesting to do to a nationally recognized event.”
As the Showhouse gained attention on a national level, IWS members enjoyed unexpected moments in the limelight. Adams remembers, “I was contacted by an NBC producer from Open House, a nationally broadcast TV show that highlights the design world. We scheduled a time to speak over the phone, and I remember thinking how humorous it was to be receiving a phone call from Rockefeller Center in my kitchen.” Jenny Mulliken, who has created a heightened social media profile for the Showhouse via Instagram and Facebook, recalls sitting down with a cup of coffee and a copy of Traditional Home only to find the magazine’s cover featured the 2013 Showcase House’s morning room by designer Gail Plechaty.
While the technology behind organizing volunteers or creating publicity has evolved, the members’ motivation remains unchanged. Mulliken explains, “The well-being of women and children is a cause you can never outgrow as a volunteer no matter what stage of life you may be in.” Dhamer notes that after years of hard work and dedication, the Lake Forest Showhouse & Gardens is now regarded as one of the top five design showcase houses in the country. “Over the years the hard work has paid off. All the publicity is wonderful because it equals more ticket sales which equals more money for the clinic and that is truly what it is all about,” she says. Grumhaus stresses that “we are not just a Showhouse, we are serving a working clinic that treats an underserved, underinsured population who wouldn’t otherwise have medical and dental care.”
The 2015 Lake Forest Showhouse & Gardens will take place from April 25 through May 17, 2015. To purchase tickets, visit lakeforestshowhouse.com. JWC Media is a media sponsor for this event.