by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the points made in yesterday’s virtual presentation, “Take a Tour Through the Twenties,” which used dozens of photographs from the Homestead’s collection to present a whirlwind trip through greater Los Angeles during that decade, was that it can be particularly challenging to find historic artifacts that provide the basis for stories of underrepresented groups, including ethnic minorities and women.
In the case of the former, a recent post here on the development of the Hotel Somerville in South-Central Los Angeles highlighted an important component of upbuilding for the city’s growing black community—a story that has was not told often enough until very recently. With the latter, there are more examples of how women moved increasingly into the public sphere, though this usually involves the stories of middle and upper class white women, with examples given of Mary Foy and Mary Julia Workman, whose families were mid-nineteenth century arrivals in the City of Angels and who became prominent in social causes and politics by the 1920s.
Tonight’s post involves a woman who was not of that cadre of well-connected women in Los Angeles, but who is an interesting figure despite neither having the pedigree or the documentation of a Foy or a Workman. As is so often the case with objects from the Homestead’s collection, the acquisition of the letter and photograph featured here was made without knowing that there was a gender component of note. Instead, the purchase of these artifacts was made with an eye to a broader story about the booming real estate market of the Twenties in greater Los Angeles.
The missive is on letterhead reading “S. Durnerin / Real Estate Broker” with an address on Vermont Avenue just north of Pico Boulevard and it was assumed that the individual involved was male, because, as in most areas of business at that time and place, the field of real estate was dominated by men. So, this could have been “Stephen,” “Seymour,” or “Solomon,” but a little bit of digging around revealed the suprise that the broker was Suzanne Durnerin, who had several professional roles in her life of just over fifty years.
She was born in May 1882 in France to Martha and Gabriel Durnerin and the family migrated to the United States when Suzanne was a girl. By the end of nineteenth century, the family was in Los Angeles where her father secured a long-tenured position as a professor of French at the exclusive Marlborough School for Girls, opened by Mary Caswell as St. Margaret’s School for Girls in 1889 just as the major boom of that decade was coming to a close. The institution was in the University Park neighborhood just north of the University of Southern California and is now in Hancock Park. Gabriel also taught French on the side, had a musical background and was an inventor.
The Durnerin family consisted of six children, two sons and four daughters, and despite Gabriel’s position at an exclusive girls’ school, they did not live in exclusive neighborhoods or hold jobs with prestigious companies. The family lived in what is now Skid Row and then at Temple and Flower streets, where the Department of Water and Power headquarters is now, before moving to south Grand Avenue not far from the Marlborough campus. In the 1900 census, Gabriel was listed as a “school teacher,” though he used the term “professor” in advertisements for his teaching on the side, while his two sons worked as railway clerks for the Los Angeles Railway streetcar company. While the two younger daughters were still in school, the eldest, Martha, was a teacher at age 19, and Suzanne, a year younger, was working as a stenographer, perhaps also for the railway.
This was just a year after she graduated from Los Angeles High School, where she graduated from the commercial department along with fifteen others, including just three other females. In its coverage of the commencement event, the Los Angeles Express of 30 June 1899 reported that Suzanne delivered a speech on “Women in Politics” Lest it be assumed, however, that Durnerin was a suffrage advocate in training, the paper noted that “Miss Durnerin did not believe that the human race will be served best by the enfranchisement of women.”
Rather, the article went on, “she said that the best women of the country have never asked for the ballot, and that women should inform themselves concerning business and politics, not with a view to voting, but rather in order that they may advise and inspire men.” Reflecting perhaps a conservatism based on her heritage and her Roman Catholic faith, Suzanne espoused the idea that “a woman is performing the noblest mission when she tries to make her home the happiest place on earth.”
It turned out that Durnerin never married and so could not fulfill that “nobles mission” and her views may have changed with the maturity and fullness of time; for example, she was registered as a Republican for a time in the mid-1910s and in the early Twenties, but was mainly a Democrat from the time she could note in the 1910s until her death.
In any case, Durnerin showed an early interest in real estate, as evidenced by her acquisition of lots in Alamitos Beach near Long Beach in 1904, her purchase in 1908 of a home in Vermont Square neighborhood, southwest of U.S.C., and the sale of a residence near Normandie and Beverly a couple of years later. In 1917, she and her sister Martha built a four-unit apartment building in Hollywood that appears to be still be with us.
Like her father, she had an interest in inventing and took out a patent in 1927 for a hair curler. Finally, her training in the commercial department of the high school apparently prepared her for a career, by the mid-1910s, with the Pacific Electric Railway, the parent company of the Los Angeles Railway, as a stenographer, secretary, and deed clerk and then, by the end of that decade, as a “computor” in the firm’s Valuation Bureau. The company magazine of 10 March 1926 featured “The Feminine in Engineering” with Durnerin and two colleagues highlighted for their work.
The piece began with the rhetorical question, “will someone please supply the word which better fits than ‘draftsmen’ where reference is made to the gentle sex engaged in that vocation?” It added that “obviously, ‘draftsmen’ does not fit the bill and search of our unabridged [dictionary] fails to properly inform us.” The article continued “that sex need not and does not necessarily determine the vocations of life is rather well exemplified in our Drafting Room where will be found three ladies doing what is generally accepted as man’s work” though it was noted that “each, through years of employment in the department, have proved their fitnes and their work is of highly technical character.”
For Durnerin, her work as “computor” meant working with “many kinds of computations, such as areas, spreading land values, etc.” Moreover, “she also is assigned the handling of right-of-way records—making description[s] for deeds, easements and general right-of-way map maintenance.” She continued in the employ of the Pacific Electric until her death in January 1934 at age 51.
As for the letter and photo, these were sent by Durnerin to Charles Murray, who worked in the Pacific Electric real estate department before striking out on his own with an office in the Grosse Building, which used to stand at the southeast corner of Main and 6th streets and which was the regional headquarters of the Southern Pacific railroad. So, one former colleague to another wrote about “our conversation the other day in regard to [the] flat [apartment] building in which you thought one of your prospects might be interested.”
Durnerin added that “this building contains four flats of five rooms each, is of recent construction and located in the select West Adams residence district on the highest ground in that district.” Unfortunately, she did not provide the address, either in the missive or on the back of the photograph, where she did inscribe her name, title as “Exclusive Agent” and her address. In any case, the “construction is Spanish stucco” with brick tile walls of 14 inches thickness and the “interior very handsomely decorated.” Durnerin added that the woman who owned it “is very much in need of cash” so the $28,000 “is a bargain” especially as income was $3840 per year. The photo shows the front elevation of the structure, which sported arched windows, a decorative curved cast-iron balcony, and a red tile roof.
So, Durnerin supplemented her full-time job with the Pacific Electric as a pioneer of sorts of “The Feminine in Engineering” while having a side gig as a rare woman real estate broker during the Roaring Twenties and this letter and photo are documents of that latter role for a notable, though not well-known, Angeleno of her time.