Mary Louise Schmidt: Architecture’s “Fairy Godmother, Patron Saint and Guardian Angel”

Fairy godmothers are rarely the subject of history and you have to look hard to find Mary Schmidt’s name among the giants of architecture. She is not mentioned in Nathan Marsak’s history of the Architects Building at Fifth and Figueroa, which she financed and had built,[1] nor is her work as the organizer of the California House and Garden Exhibit mentioned in Taschen’s tome on Richard Neutra, whose design she championed. She gets a nod from the online Paul Revere Williams Project site, but is not included in the usual biographies of Arthur Kelly who gave her a start in architecture.

Yet, as a housing advocate, exhibit organizer and founder of the Architects and Engineers Service Building Center, Mary Louise Schmidt did as much as any architect to shape the look of Los Angeles’ built environment.

Fig 3 1927 better homes week picture florence

Figure 1: Mary Schmidt’s sister Florence shared her interest in architecture and housing

Originally from Colorado, Mary came to California with her parents in 1911. Her father was an engineer and both Mary and her sister Florence became interested in architecture, the construction industry and home building (figure 1).[i] Architect Arthur Kelly hired Mary as a secretary in 1912. Two years later, she organized the world’s first exhibition of architecture and building materials. Mary financed the show, located in the newly constructed Metropolitan Building at 5th and Broadway, by charging manufactures to display their products, while architects paid nothing (figures 2 and 3).[ii]

In 1921, Mary married attorney Bryon D. Seaver, although she continued to be referred to as Miss Schmidt for most of her professional career.

 

Fig 1 LAPL 00031865 interior Met Building

Figure 2: Interior of the Metropolitan Building. LAPL Photo Collection

Fig 2 LAPL 00044405 exterior Met Building

Figure 3: Exterior of the Metropolitan Building at 5th and Broadway. LAPL Photo Collection

As a leader in the local Better Homes in America campaign, Mary was in charge of building model houses for the city’s annual exhibits. The Better Homes group was established in 1923 to promote home ownership and better home construction nationally. In Los Angeles, Mary worked with a coalition of women’s clubs, the Chamber of Commerce and the city’s building trade associations. In 1927, Los Angeles’ team constructed a concrete house at Fifth and Flower Street in less than two weeks.[4]

The Better Homes campaign continued into the early 1930s, but it was Mary’s dream to create a more permanent showcase for the architecture she believed in. Working with the owner of the land and a team of architects, Mary created the Architects Building on the southeast corner of 5th and Figueroa Streets. A contemporary account described her involvement as “very instrumental” in promoting the building. At the time of her death in the mid-1970s, Mary’s role was more appropriately defined as “chief builder.” Writing in the late 1990s, Cecilia Rasmussen positioned Mary, “pregnant and ankle-deep in mud from recent storm,” supervising its construction (figure 4).[5]

Fig 4 LAPL 00019149 architects building

Figure 4: Architects Building photographed in 1929. LAPL Photo Collection, Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Mary’s new project, the California House and Garden Exhibit, incorporated many of her ideas about how families should live in Los Angeles. In 1935, she leased a vacant lot on Wilshire between Spaulding and Genesee and contracted with local builders to construct a complex of six houses, each designed in a different style by local architects, including Richard Neutra, Paul Williams, John Buyers, Arthur Kelly and Risley & Gould (figure 5). Along with the six homes, the exhibit included a badminton court, three bamboo aviaries with rare tropical birds and an aquarium of tropical fish (figure 6).[6] It opened in April of 1936 and more than 20,000 people visited in its first week. When it closed a year later, more than 70,000 had walked through the houses and grounds.[7]

view exhibit

Figure 6: Panorama of the California House and Garden Exhibit

At the exhibit’s end, the homes were raffled off in a free drawing and moved to other locations. Richard Neutra’s contribution to the exhibit, the Douglas Fir Plywood Model Demonstration House, was moved to 427 Beloit Avenue in Westwood.[8]

Mary’s final and probably most significant accomplishment was the establishment of the Architects and Engineers Service Building Center that connected architects with building material manufactures. It was her policy to hire women who had recently graduated from college. Their job was to “educate architects and engineers on the latest innovations and materials.” [9] To do so, they had to be educated themselves. Apart from the usual on the job training, Mary organized lectures and tours of buildings in progress, thus introducing a new group of women to the field.[10] At its peak, the business had offices in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Phoenix.

Mary died in May 1974 at the age of 83. For a woman whose work was dismissed at the time as a “hobby”,[11] her legacy as a business woman and building industry pioneer put her among the exceptional few.

 

[1] To be fair, Mary’s name does not appear in any of the source material cited.

[2] Florence was a partner in many of Mary’s ventures. Along with co-organizing the California Building Exhibit, Florence wrote about architecture for the Los Angeles Times in a column called the Construction Primer from 1945 to 1958.

[3] Rasmussen, Cecilia “On Architects’ Turf, She Built a Tribute” Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1997|, http://articles.latimes.com/1997/sep/14/local/me-32267

[4] “Practical Demonstration: Model House Being Built” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Apr 15, 1927, pg. A1

[5] “Builders’ Unit Contract Let: Twelve-Story Edifice To Rise For Fifth” Los Angeles Times, pg. E1; “Mary Seaver; Founder of Builder Center” Los Angeles Times May 28, 1974; ProQuest Historical Newspapers, pg. 26; Rasmussen, Cecilia “On Architects’ Turf, She Built a Tribute” Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1997|, http://articles.latimes.com/1997/sep/14/local/me-32267

[6] “Finishing Touches Being Put on Exhibit” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Apr 5, 1936, pg. D4

[7] “Thousands View Opening of Exhibit” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Apr 26, 1936, pg. D2; Whitaker, Alma “Sugar and Spice” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); May 2, 1936, pg. A5

[8] “House-Garden Exhibit Home Presented” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Oct 4, 1936; ProQuest Historical Newspapers, pg. E5; Barbara Mac Lamprecht, “Richard Neutra: Complete Works”, Taschen, 2000. For more on Neutra’s contribution to the exhibit see,  John Crosse’s blog post on Julias Shulman’s photographs of the exhibit.

[9] The Paul Revere Williams Project, http://www.paulrwilliamsproject.org/gallery/paul-r-williams-and-aeaes-representative/

[10] Letter to Rudolph Schindler, 1952, R. M. Schindler papers, UC Santa Barbara, Architecture and Design Collection, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, Box 2, Folder 10

[11] Whitaker, Alma “Building Hobby of Woman: Marie Louise Schmidt, Mother of Four …” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Apr 9, 1934, pg. 10

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