History of the Center
The William Way LGBT Community Center was incorporated as the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia in 1974. The State of Pennsylvania and the IRS first recognized the Center as a not-for-profit organization in 1976, and it quickly leased its first home at 326 Kater Street in Philadelphia. The original Community Center offered a library, classes, support groups and a coffeehouse.
In 1981, the Community Center moved to 222 South Camac Street, along the side of what is now the Lincoln Apartments. After that second location closed in 1984, the Center spent the next four years without a physical home but continued to sponsor events in various venues in the city. During this time, board meetings were frequently held in William “Bill” Way’s own living room (Way worked with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and was an LGBT activist). Starting in 1985, the Center became "Penguin Place: The Community Center Without Walls." From 1984 to 1988, only the library had its own space, a room that Penguin Place rented in the Community Education Center at 3500 Lancaster Avenue near Drexel University.
In 1988, Penguin Place leased a building on Quince Street (across from the Bike Stop). Unfortunately, the Center was forced to move from this location following a fire in which some of the archives were destroyed. From 1990 to 1997, Penguin Place relocated to 201 South Camac Street, home of the former Camac Baths. In this new facility, it set up a library, archives, youth programs, peer counseling, support groups and a cabaret space. In the mid 1990s, Penguin Place expanded its mission to support bisexual and transgender community members.
In 1997, after more than 20 years of renting, the Community Center finally bought a building, its present location at 1315 Spruce Street. The executive board named it The William Way Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. It was named for Bill Way, who died in 1988, because he was a driving force behind the Community Center throughout the 1980s. As a city planner, he was instrumental in the revitalization of Center City, including Old City and the Convention Center. Way was also one of the first high-level city officials in Philadelphia to publicly disclose his HIV-positive status.
The new William Way LGBT Community Center hired its first executive director in 1997 and began offering a wide array of volunteer-run programs, including peer counseling, a library, archives and athletic clubs. The Center also became a landlord, renting space to other nonprofit organizations.
In 1999, the Center hired Claire Baker as its second executive director. She had previously served as COO of MANNA, a Philadelphia-based HIV/AIDS service organization that has since expanded into a nutrition service. Under her leadership, the Center grew volunteer-based programs, created new policies and procedures and developed one of the Center’s signature fundraising event, Indigo Ball.
2000 - Present
In 2003, the Center hired `Dolph Ward Goldenburg, who had previously served as the director of resource development for the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Atlanta and North Georgia. Goldenburg’s fundraising skills helped the center hire professional staff to manage the front desk as well as volunteer and program operations. During his tenure, the Center hosted the first LGBT Inaugural Gala (later revived as Indigo Ball), retired the mortgage and invested more than $200,000 in building renovations. Senior programming, Way Gay U, the art gallery, archives, library and volunteer-based programs were also expanded and/or created during this vital period.
In 2010, the Center hired Chris Bartlett as its fourth executive director. Bartlett has over 20 years of experience organizing in the LGBT community in Philadelphia, and had formerly served as director of the SafeGuards LGBT Health Project. He was also the director of the LGBT Assessment of Philadelphia and LGBT Leadership Initiative, and the interim director of the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund. In his first year on the job, Bartlett ramped up fundraising, expanded access to the Center and made use of new technologies to broaden awareness about the Center both in the region and nationally.
In 2012, the Center continued to grow. It received a grant from the David Bohnett Foundation to expand its Cyber Center. New lighting brightened the exterior of the building and new furniture was moved into the lobby. The Center also developed a strategic alliance with Philly’s Attic Youth Center, while arts and culture continued to be an important part of the ongoing programs, including star-studded concerts, which in 2013, featured appearances by composer Jennifer Higdon, pianist Ching-Yun Hu and violist Judy Geist.
In 2013, the Center received a $200,000 grant to create the nation’s first LGBT jazz festival, which took place one year later. The Center had also created a series of new programs, like Reminder2015, which featured LGBT history events throughout Philadelphia. The Center also partnered with the John C. Anderson Apartments and the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund to create programming for seniors who will live in this LGBT-friendly community just down the street from William Way.
In 2014, the Center received a three-year grant from the William Penn Foundation to renovate and expand the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives. It also appointed Candice Thompson to the new position of COO, supervising all internal operations of William Way. In 2015, the Center celebrated 40 years of service to the LGBT community with a 40th Anniversary Indigo Ball at the National Constitution Center. It also mounted the first exhibit of LGBT history at a national museum, “Speaking OUT for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights and the Supreme Court,” which ran for six months and was seen by more than 25,000 people.
Building upon its work with its archives and LGBT history projects, in 2016 William Way received a grant from the Department of the Interior to partner with Independence National Historical Park to develop and implement LGBT walking tours, including an online map of LGBT historical sites (plus a smaller version of the “Speaking OUT for Equality” exhibit shown at the Liberty Bell pavilion in 2018).
By 2018, the Center began focusing on wellness and empowerment by introducing new programs focused on intimate partner violence, LGBT refugees and tobacco education and cessation. The Center’s cultural programs also grew thanks to partnerships with the Philly Pops (which included a visit from singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright), and a live show by musician Jill Sobule. Strategically, William Way also grew its development programs with new “Your Way” tours that introduce 30 new guests to the Center each month. It’s also engaging in diversity and inclusion initiatives that have invited groups that explore issues of racism and transphobia to use free space on site. The Center has also bolstered its effort to place more people from diverse backgrounds into key leadership roles on both the staff and board.
The future of the Center relies on community members becoming even more actively engaged in programming, community building and support. Ultimately, the William Way LGBT Community Center would like to see even more new faces at events and in volunteer and administrative positions to help sustain the most vital needs of the LGBT community and its allies.