by Paul R. Spitzzeri
During boom times, it is hardly surprising to see, historically, a rise among the elites in memberships in country clubs, social clubs, athletic clubs and other like organizations and greater Los Angeles certainly had its share of these during much of the Homestead’s interpretive era, especially from the 1870s through the 1920s.
In those earlier days, they were certainly more modest, but one example was the formation of the Union Club, spearheaded by F.P.F. Temple as he enjoyed the fruits of the city’s first sustained period of growth from the late 1860s through the mid 1870s. The organization built a second-floor clubroom in a building Temple erected on Spring Street towards the tail-end of that boom in 1874-75 and, when the bubble burst in that latter year and the economy went into a tailspin, including the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, the club went under.
Still, by the beginning of the 20th century, especially after the much larger boom of 1886-1888, there was an uptick in social clubs for the elite, including the creation of the California Club in 1888 during the end of that enormously important growth period and, several years later, the Jonathan Club. Somewhat different was the Los Angeles Athletic Club, formed in 1880, and which combined an emphasis on physical fitness with an increasingly important social element.
By the 1920s, these clubs were housed in impressive multi-story downtown structures, in close proximity to the burgeoning commercial district, and became increasingly sumptuous in appointments and amenities to its members, who, however, were almost exclusive white men.
A little-known, but notable, effort to develop a new kind of social organization came with the creation of the Deauville Beach Club at Santa Monica in the mid -Twenties. Deauville is the name of a seaside resort town on the Normandy coast of France, about a 2 1/2 hours drive from Paris, and its casino, hotels and other elements remain popular today. Its namesake club on the shore of Santa Monica was not established by the most wealthy or powerful of figures in local society, but it certainly made a mighty effort to develop an institution that would rival, in offerings, older clubs. It was also more direct in its advertising for women members.
The club was announced in July 1926 with a splash, including large advertisements, sometimes full page, in local newspapers, and aggressive marketing through these channels, but also in the hiring of salesmen to beat the bushes for memberships. Its location at 1525 Ocean Avenue, now Ocean Front Walk, just north of the Santa Monica Pier, was an excellent one and the original plans called for a $1.25 million structure with an eleven-story tower with several hundred guest rooms and a large main building with several dining rooms, an enormous indoor swimming pool, a gymnasium, a ballroom, a glassed-in esplanade facing the water, and much more. Life memberships, which were to become $350, started with a promotional price of $200, while regular memberships were initially offered at $100 and to soon rise to $150. These were also transferable subject to the club’s by-laws.
Construction on the club, designed by the prominent architectural firm of Morgan, Walls and Clements and in an exuberant style like a European castle, began in late October. Yet, as the project progressed into 1927, it was considerably scaled-back, especially with the decision to jettison the tower, though the three-story main block largely remained intact, while a bridge, intended to reach the facility from the famed palisades to the east was also left out of the final product. Still, its unusual castle-like exterior was noteworthy and the interiors were impressive, as well. The formal opening was on 20 September 1927 and there were three days of festivities, including a formal event on the first, an informal one following, and a Mardi Gras carnival on the last day.
Some of the events held there included dramatic performances; a bathing suit competition sponsored by fashion and costume designer Peggy Hamilton, who wrote for the Los Angeles Times, had a radio show, and did considerable work for women actors in the film industry; bridge luncheons; dinner dances; birthday parties; and many more.
There were, however, problems that developed quickly. One was a class-action lawsuit filed in December 1928 on behalf of some fifty members who charged the club with misrepresentation in selling memberships. The complaint alleged that these memberships were sold on the promise that the original design with the hotel tower and the bridge from the palisades was to be completed, and that there would be 700 feet of beach frontage. A Superior Court judge ruled for the club initially, but, in a rehearing, he reversed himself and, in May 1930, he awarded just shy of $6,000 to the plaintiffs.
The other problem appears to have been, typical for boom times, that the promoters vastly overextended themselves with their ambitions and aims. Not only did they promise more than they could deliver on the Santa Monica facility, but they immediately launched a sister project: the Deauville City Club, announced in September 1926.
This was to be an eleven-story height limit building at the northwest corner of Sixth and Flower streets and to cost north of $2 million, including the building and its furnishings and fixtures. The property was acquired for $1 million on a 99-year lease, with an option to buy from George Hart, owner of the Rosslyn Hotel and a member of the Deauville Board of Governors. Among the agents involved in the transaction was one of the sales executives for major developer Frank Meline, also a member of Deauville’s board. Morgan, Walls and Clements drew up the plans, though it appeared to have more of a subdued Renaissance Revival style more in keeping with the commercial buildings found in the area.
Entire floors were to be devoted to a gymnasium and squash and handball courts, while other features were to include a swimming pool, Turkish and Russian baths, a bowling alley, a billiard and pool room, card rooms, a large ball room, a grill, a cafeteria, dining rooms, a nursery and children’s playroom, and two floors for a garage.
An ad pushed the idea that Deauville was “an absolutely new idea in metropolitan clubs” and was ideal for the “ultra-modern man and woman.” Men would be drawn to what was “offered to serve business men in business hours—for athletic purposes—and for social pastimes.” But, gentlemen could “share its activities and advantages with their companions of the fair sex—for dinner, dancing, swimming or card parties” and this was something “no other club has ever offered.
For women, Deauville was aimed both at “business women [who] can use continuously to excellent advantage” a centrally-located facility “for lunches, appointments or entertainment,”and at “the woman who has leisure time, or whose principal activities are in the home, it is an ideal downtown rendezvous.” These two classes of ladies could enjoy bridge parties, teas, swimming and “other athletic diversions,” and “any and every kind of evening social affair.”
While early notices in newspapers averred that some 40% of the membership applications for the city club were from female film industry members and “women prominent in social and club work” and there was aggressive advertising for salesmen, the project never got off the ground and it was quickly abandoned, especially as the beach club also struggled.
The Santa Monica facility was sold in summer 1930, not long after the Great Depression broke out, to the Los Angeles Athletic Club and it remained in continuous operation until 1943. The building was, for several months, used for military purposes, but it reverted back to being a club in summer 1944. Over the next two decades or so, its fortunes continued to diminish, however, and it was closed and left empty for a period when disaster struck in April 1964. Purportedly, some twenty young people got in the building, which suffered from vandalism previously, and fires broke out from several locations, destroying the structure, which was not quite forty years old.
The Homestead has two Deauville-related artifacts in its collection. The first is a Deauville City Club pamphlet laying out the ambitious plans for the facility much as the newspaper ads did. There is, however, not only the Morgan, Walls and Clements architectural rendering, but drawings showing the ballroom, bowling alleys, pool and billiard room, the main dining room, the gymnasium and a squash and handball court. Also listed are the members of the Board of Governors.
Then there is the featured artifact here: the August 1928 issue of La Revue de Deauville, the beach club magazine’s fourth number, which includes a remembrance of founding president Frank J. Wagner; a subscription blank; an article about a bridge luncheon fund-raiser for the “Kiddie Koop Home” said to be “for helpless children” who were “half-orphans” or from broken homes and its nursery building fund; a drama night party and a description of the first play put on by the Deauville Dramatic Society; lists of social activities for the month; summaries of visiting organizations and their events; recipes from the club’s chef, Emil Jucker; fraternity and sorority activities; and “The Manager’s Page.”
Not surprisingly, much of what manager R.W. Howell had to report concerned rules and notices, including those that were not being followed with respect to unauthorized guests, where beach apparel could and could not be worn in the club, how children were to be accompanied by a parent or guardian, and more. There were other parts, however, concerning August events, including a big Social Service League gathering, a fashion review, and a smoker and boxing contest, in addition to the dramatic society meeting and Kiddie Koop fund-raiser. Approving letters were reprinted here and other information of note were also included.
It is often useful to see advertisements in publications and there are quite a few from Santa Monica and Los Angeles businesses, including the Hotel Carmel and Hotel Broadmoor in close proximity to the club, Goodrich tire, Pierce Brothers morticians, the local Italian-French Bakery; Hollywood Dry ginger ale (it was, of course, Prohibition—at least officially!), the Hairoff Studios for, yes, hair removal, and plenty of others. The back cover advertised the “Pageant of Fashion” to be held on 22 August and conducted by Valerie Boris of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.
These items are rare surviving objects from the early years of the Deauville Beach Club and its unrealized sister Deauville City Club and representative of 1920s social clubs in greater Los Angeles, which, although these were unusual in that they catered to women and men, were also the domain of certain elites.
In fact, it became a major issue years later in terms of opening up private social clubs to women and people of color. From the 1960s onward, complaints that prominent Los Angeles institutions like the Jonathan and California clubs, but also others, discriminated against blacks and Jews and forbade women members mounted. Over time, changes were belatedly made and much of the efforts took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Prominent social clubs, however, no longer have quite the cache they did in eras like the 1920s and it’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for them.