History is best experienced in situ and so I was excited to join a group earlier this month for a mother’s day walk along Figueroa Street. Organized by Victoria Bernal of @LAHistory, our journey included an overview of sites associated with the famous, but mostly not so famous, women of Los Angeles. Bits and pieces of this history is scattered about the Internet and in local archives, but it was wonderful to stitch the fragments together as we walked.
The tour included stops at the Hotel Figueroa (figure 1) and the Variety Arts Building. We briefly paused to read a plaque on the side of the Original Pantry Restaurant honoring grandmothers and peered through the gates of 801 S. Figueroa to admire the Zanja Madre (mother ditch) public art installation by Andrew Leicester (figure 2). After a quick re-fueling at Engine Company 28 (which has no women’s history that we know of, but makes a mean mac n’ cheese), the walk ended with an opportunity to think about the history that has been lost, including the childhood home of Los Angeles’ first female librarian, Mary Foy and the Architects’ Building created by building entrepreneur, Mary Louise Schmidt.
Because of a Clippers game, the YWCA-built Hotel Figueroa was a little busier than the usual sleepy Sunday. The hotel, “financed, built and operated by and for femininity,” opened in 1926 at a time of economic prosperity and booming expectations. Unfortunately, by 1928 things were not so rosy. Income from the hotel was less than expected and did not cover the debts that had been incurred during its construction. [i] By 1929, the depression had settled in and the need for travel accommodations was greatly diminished. As a site of women’s history, the Hotel Figueroa is sadly a short-lived example.
However, a deeper and richer YWCA story lies beneath the current hotel’s pool. In May 1921, the Y presented plans for a lavish, women-only “health unit” (figure 3).[ii] Designed by an architect with the wonderfully appropriate name of John J. Frauenfelder (a word that translates to “fields of women” in German), the six story structure had a “modern Turkish bath” theme. It included a gymnasium, “massage alcoves”, steam rooms, a cafeteria and a glass enclosed “plunge.”[iii] The building also came with a roof top garden that “presented a remarkable view of the city.” In keeping with the ethos of the time, “sanitation” was the “watchword” of the new building. Bathers underwent a strict medical exam before being allowed to use the pool and only YWCA-owned bathing suits that were “sterilized following use” were allowed.[iv] While the hotel in front was sold off, the YWCA maintained their headquarters in the health unit until 1951 when the building was closed and demolished.[v] Presumably, the Hotel Figueroa’s pool is the only part of the former facility that remains.
It’s a quick walk across the street to the Variety Arts Building at 940 South Figueroa. Completed two years before the hotel, the building was originally the home of Los Angeles’ Friday Morning Club. A plaque on the facade designates the building as a city historic monument and recognizes the “cultural involvement” of club members (figure 4). Founded by suffragette Caroline Severance, referring only to the cultural contributions of the Friday Morning Club seems damned faint praise (clearly there is more than one way for women to be written out of history…).
As historian Clark Davis has suggested, the women of the Friday Morning Club were at the center of progressive era political culture. At its peak, the organization’s membership exceeded three thousand political reformers, artists, philanthropists, business and community leaders. The club served as a “springboard from which to pursue new social, cultural, intellectual and political activities” and so thinking of the club largely in social terms does not reflect its public significance or civic contributions.[vi] While rarely taking an explicit stand on electoral politics, the club served as a place for discussion and debate. Club women fought fiercely for the right of women to vote, argued for a variety of social reforms and organized forums to discuss the pros and cons of municipal bond issues. For many years, a public affairs committee sent a “steady stream” of petitions and letters to the Los Angeles City Council.[vii]
From the Variety Arts Building it is only a few blocks to the site of Mary Foy’s former home at 7th and Figueroa. Born in 1862, Foy became the city’s librarian at the age of 18. She served for only four years, but made a lasting impression on both the library and the city by campaigning for the construction of the central library through the 1920s. When Foy died in 1962, her body laid in state in the City Hall rotunda, an honor bestowed on very few of the city’s elite.[viii]
Finally, at the very end of the tour, the group huddled around one of the Los Angeles Walks markers to consider the place where the Architects’ Building had once stood (figure 5). Created by Mary Louise Schmidt, the building brought architects and engineers together with building material and trade companies. After working as a secretary in an architectural firm, Schmidt organized her first building exhibit in 1914. In the 1930s, she launched the extremely successful California House and Garden Exhibit which was attended by more than 70,000 people. As part of the show, a number of model homes were built on site including one from Paul Williams. Another home, designed by Richard Neutra, featured light metal frame strips and prefabricated parts.[ix] Schmidt sounds like an amazing woman and is definitely worth a future post.
[i] “Women’s Hostelry Unique” Los Angeles Times September 5, 1926, pg. C9. “Need for Funds Outlined” Los Angeles Times March 11 1928, pg. C31. While it was certainly an important resource for working women, I might quibble a bit with Hadley Meares recent characterization of the early YWCA as “feminist.” The organization may have grown into a progressive supporter of women’s issues, but its early founders were clearly women of their time. For example, one of the tasks of the local YWCA was to meet unaccompanied women at the city’s train stations and “escort” them off the streets to “suitable” accommodations. These activities were a conservative, rather than feminist, response to the presence increasing numbers of women in the workforce and reflect contemporary fears of the disruptive nature of women in public space. See the work of Janet Wolff, Griselda Pollock and Dolores Hayden for critical histories.
[ii] “YWCA Soon to Start Building” Los Angeles Times May 15, 1921 pg. V1
[iii] Frauenfelder also designed the Los Angeles Nurses Club which still stands at Third and Lucas Streets. The club is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is an LA City monument.
[iv] “Y.W.C.A. Proud of Structure: Construction of “Health Unit” Completed” Los Angeles Times, May 21 1922, II5
[v] Sutherland, Henry “YWCA 113 Years Old and Goes on Growing” Los Angeles Times, Oct 14 1968: B1
[vi] Davis, Clark, “An Era and Generation of Civic Engagement: the Friday Morning Club in Los Angeles, 1891 – 1931” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 84, No 2, (Summer 2002), pp. 135-168.
[vii] Ibid, p. 150
[viii] Rasmussen, Cecilia “L.A. Then and Now: Librarian Became an Institution” Los Angeles Times September 12, 1999 http://articles.latimes.com/1999/sep/12/local/me-9391http://articles.latimes.com/1999/sep/12/local/me-9391. According to Rasmussen the house was moved to Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights
[ix] Rasmussen, Cecilia “On Architects’ Turf, She Built a Tribute” Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1997 Available: http://articles.latimes.com/1997/sep/14/local/me-32267. Also see, http://www.paulrwilliamsproject.org/gallery/paul-r-williams-and-aeaes-representative/