Through the Viewfinder: The Women’s Christian Temperance Union Temple, Los Angeles, ca. 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the Homestead commemorates the centennial of the enactment of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, and we get ready to change our exhibit in the Homestead Museum Gallery from the temperance movement leading up to 1919 with the Prohibition years that followed through the rescinding of the amendment in 1933, this post highlights, from the museum’s collection, a 1920s photo of the headquarters of one of the major players in the temperance movement: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) Temple as seen in a 1920s photograph.

Frances Willard (1839-1898) was the dynamic figure who was crucial in the growth and development of the WCTU.  Born in New York and raised in Ohio and Wisconsin, Willard was a graduate of a women’s college who taught for several years before taking a two-year world tour in the late 1860s.

Frances Willard talk The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Apr_3__1883_ (1)
Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1883.

On returning to America, she became president of the Evanston College for Ladies, affiliated with the Methodist Church and then absorbed within Northwestern University, where she was a professor in English and Art and served as the dean of women.  She clashed frequently with university president, the Rev. Charles H. Fowler, who was engaged to Willard until she ended their relationship in the early 1860s.  Willard resigned in 1874 and moved in a new direction.

This trajectory involved what has been termed the “Woman’s Crusade” including the growing temperance movement that was significantly weighted towards religious organizations and middle and upper class advocates.  After joining an Illinois state temperance society, Willard went to Cleveland where the WCTU was formed with her elected corresponding secretary.

Concert ad The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__Jun_29__1883_.jpg
Times, 29 June 1883.

Despite the name, Willard and others pushed aggressively for an added platform advocating woman suffrage, next year’s major interpretive topic for the Homestead because of the centennial of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote in federal elections.  There was dissension in the ranks of the WCTU, but Willard’s faction won out and, in 1879, she ascended to the presidency.

In 1883, Willard came to Los Angeles as part of a concerted effort to broaden the membership and reach of the Union.  In its 3 April 1883 edition, the Los Angeles Times, then only 16 months old, reported that

Miss Willard invites all Christians and temperance workers, especially the ladies, as they only can become members, to meet at the Fort Street M[ethodist.E[pisocpal]. Church, to organize a society of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at 10 o’clock this morning.

The prior evening, Willard spoke at the church on “Home Protection” and talked about schools, churches and homes as being the enemies of the dreaded saloon.  The Times noted that Willard referred to a movement “to introduce text-books showing the effect of alcoholic liquors upon the human system” and that would demonstrate that teetotalers could avoid sickness and injury in ways consumers of alcohol could not.

The article summarized Willard as suggesting that “society is gradually turning to temperance, and it is now no longer fashionable to set the intoxicating bowl before one’s guests.”  It was stated that “Queen Victoria has many total abstainers in her Court” as evidence of an international gain in temperance.

Temple cost The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__May_13__1888_
Times, 13 May 1888.

The Los Angeles chapter was created through a strong collaboration with the Fort Street Methodist Episcopal Church (it bears noting that the University of Southern California, then just three years new, was a Methodist-affiliated school initially) as that form of Protestantism was a growing force in Los Angeles.  Perhaps the first public event of the chapter was a benefit concert for the organization held at the church in June 1883 and the heading was, tellingly, “For God and Home and Native Land,” which was the WCTU motto, though the native Indians of America might have objected to that last part of the phrase.

Temple funding problem Los_Angeles_Herald_Wed__Sep_26__1888_
Los Angeles Herald, 26 September 1888.

The chapter continued to use the church as its headquarters, but ardently desired its own building.  As the Boom of the 1880s came to greater Los Angeles, the chapter succeeded in its effort and committed to a $45,000 four-story brick structure at the northwest corner of Fort Street (soon renamed Broadway) and Temple.

Unfortunately, as the boom went bust, so did the fundraising effort of the WCTU to fully fund the construction of the structure.  In September 1888, the Los Angeles Herald bemoaned the situation, claiming that “of the many structures of architectural beauty that crown the hills of the ‘City of Angels,’ there are probably none that will excite more pride than the Temperance Temple.

Temple fundraising problem Los_Angeles_Herald_Sat__Nov_10__1888_
Herald, 10 November 1888.

But, of the $22,000 needed immediately for the continuance of the construction, only $13,000 was in hand and $6,000 that was subscribed could not be collected.  Without an infusion of funds, the work would cease and the structure sold.  If the $9,000 could be raised, a loan could be obtained and the project completed, so “the citizens of Los Angeles are asked to retain this building.”

Yet, such fundraisers that followed this plea as a children’s “entertainment” that charged just ten cents a head and a subscription effort that yielded just $40.  Somehow, however, work did continue and there may have been a benefactor or benefactors who stepped forward with the resources to push the project forward.

Temple Indian woman Woman in Scarlet The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Feb_24__1889_.jpg
Times, 24 February 1889.

In February 1889, the Times reported that a charity bazaar planned for the first week of the next month had to be postponed for several more weeks “owing to delays in receiving building supplies to complete the Temperance Temple.”  Notably, the two articles below this one concerned the awful plight of “Indian Eliza,” an alcoholic native committed to the County Hospital and about Lottie Williams, “the woman in scarlet,” and described obliquely as “a rather prepossessing young female, clad in a flaming red dress” and accused of petty larceny by a man who claimed he “was inveigled into the place” and robbed of $30.

In April 1889, the temple was finally completed, though the organization had to keep working to pay off the debt it contracted to get the structure finished.  The building was also less than inspiring architecturally, at least to some minds.

Temple description ugly as sin The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__Mar_27__1889_
Times, 27 March 1889.

Erected in the Romanesque Revival style that was dominant at the time in the City of Angels, including such major structures as the City Hall and the County Courthouse, both a short distance south on Fort Street/Broadway from the Temple, it elicited this ambiguous assessment from the Times:

It is a building which has caused more comments, from its odd architectural design, than any other in the city.  No two people agree in their opinions about it.  Some think it is a handsome structure, and others think it is as ugly as sin . . . The building seems to be of no particular style of architecture and of all styles, but it is substantially and solidly constructed, and occupies of the most commanding sites in the city.  From the upper stories a magnificent view of the surrounding country is obtained.  Altogether, it is one of the notable buildings of the city.

While some of interior elements were considered “odd,” these were also “attractive, and the arrangement of rooms convenient.”  The ground floor included the offices, a library and reading room, and a hall, while the upper three levels were for individual offices and suites.  A notable feature consisted of two public fountains outside on both Temple and Broadway with water cooled “through coils of pipe surrounded by ice, so that it is deliciously cold and ready for the wayfarer.”  Undoubtedly, the Union thought it better for men to quench their thirst with cold water at the fountains rather than beer or hard liquor!

Temperance Temple headline The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Apr_29__1889_ (1).jpg
Times, 29 April 1889.

Referring to the fragile finances of the organization, the Times reported that “the building is not at all paid for, and it is the design of the ladies to clear it of incumbrances by the renting of rooms, and also by subscriptions.”

On 28 April 1889, the official dedication ceremony at the Temperance Temple took place, though a fundraising bazaar was held there early in the month.  The Fort Street Methodist Church was particularly prominent in the proceedings, including the performance of hymns and the reading of Scripture.

Temple dedication The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Apr_29__1889_
An excerpt of a speech by WCTU lecturer Henrietta Moore at the dedication ceremonies for the Temperance Temple, Times, 29 April 1889.

A WCTU lecturer, Henrietta Moore of Ohio, was first to speak and her address “sparkled with wit and earnestness,” though she admitted “she had wondered whether this temple would ever be completed” and that the project was head of in the east “as they heard of other extraordinary things about California.”  These latter included mustard so tall and sturdy that people could sit on the branches (!) and huge agricultural products (pumpkin, beets and strawberries, specifically) “so large that ladders placed at their sides could hardly reach the top.”

Obviously, this was all intended as humor to warm the crowd up and Moore then got to the heart of the matter:

You are such intelligent people that you know the vigorous demand that is growing up for the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of liquor.  There are some people even yet who cannot understand the reason for the movement . . . The time is ripe for temperance reform . . . There is more in this liquor contest than the mere closing of the dramshops.  To me it means the development of a grander manhood, and a purer and nobler womanhood.  We believe that revolution is evolution . . . It looks that way to us women, and we see things generally clearer than men do . . . We rejoice at the advancement of woman in this land . . . That she is just like her brother—fearfully and wonderfully made—the latest improvement. . . Man has gotten into trouble with this liquor traffic.  Now woman comes forward to help him out.

Woman was, of course, the chief guardian and protector of the home, but it was required that man stand with woman to protect the home and the “native land,” as the motto put it, and Moore ended with the hope that the Temple would be the edifice from which local efforts to bring an end to alcohol manufacturing and sale would be led.

View From Los Angeles City Hall Looking West 2014.453.1.2
This 1920s snapshot from the Homestead’s holdings of the corner of Temple Street and Broadway shows the WCTU Temperance Temple catty-corner from the photographer.  Note the drug store occupying the first floor and the reference to it and the end of this post.

Reverend Charles Heisler followed (which must have been a daunting task) and offered that it was “one of the wonders of the age, that women, unaided, and by their own efforts, had accomplished so much.  It will stand as a monument to them, and be a bulwork [sic]  against intemperance in the city.”  The pastor pointed out that the temple “in its commanding position, looks down on the vilest dens in the city, and its location is where temperance sentiment can crystallize.”  Heisler ended his speech by affirming “he had faith in the movement because it is carried out by women.”

The event ended with $500 contributed to the chapter’s coffers “part of the sum necessary to furnish with W.C.T.U. rooms in the building.”

WCTU and soldiers drinking The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__Mar_17__1943_
Times, 17 March 1943.

Tonight’s featured photo shows the temple, with its distinctive rounded corner bay, terra cotta quoins, and other eclectic trappings amid a busy intersection with a small park in the foreground (note the man and woman relaxing on the grass there).  Obviously, the WCTU took to giving up the ground floor for commercial purposes and the rent money it needed and a drug store occupied the main space there.

The structure remained as the headquarters of the chapter for more than a half-century and reference to it could be found into the World War II years.  Of course, the crowning achievement of national Prohibition was short-lived and essentially unsuccessful as the great “social experiment” had many unintended consequences and was also increasingly unpopular and honored in the breach.

Temple razed The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__May_10__1950_.jpg
Times, 10 May 1950.

After Prohibition was rescinded and the amendment repealed in 1933 as the Great Depression worsened, the WCTU tried, in vain, to bring it back and then focused on such efforts as getting the military to prohibit alcohol use among soldiers during the Second World War, though this, too, was a losing cause.

With the postwar era came a mounting effort to remake downtown Los Angeles, especially the civic center and nearby areas.  One 1949 article reported on a meeting that purported to show what the area would look like in 1970, though, as is too often the case, much of this did not come to pass.  There was talk of building the U.S. 101 through the temple property or having it become the site of a large municipal courts building.  In May 1950, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered the structure’s demolition for the Hollywood Freeway project, though that route was moved just slightly to the north.

Prohibition booze in drug store in Temple The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__May_1__1963_
Times, 1 May 1963.  At the bottom left, after other reminiscences of the 1920s, is Greenberg’s ironic comment about that drug store in the WCTU building from the photo.

Today, the site is a Los Angeles County Central Heating and Refrigeration Plant, with the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels next door (interesting given the Methodist thrust of the WCTU).   Another irony is reflected in a 1963 Times column by Carl Greenberg titled “Fading, Fading: Echoes of Roaring Twenties.”  Among a variety of recollections of 1920s Los Angeles, Greenberg related that:

The best booze in town could be purchased on prescription  from the drug store in the WCTU building at Temple and Broadway.

This was clearly the drug store shown in the photo and the Homestead will be exhibiting samples of original prescriptions for alcohol issued by Los Angeles doctors during Prohibition, so look for these in our displays during the rest of the year.

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