“To Exalt the Standard of Womanhood”: A Photo of the Mary Andrews Clark Memorial Home for Working Women, Los Angeles, 1910s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

He was among the richest and most powerful men in America during the late 19th and early 20th century and William Andrews Clark, Montana copper king, railroad builder and United States Senator, had a conspicuous presence in Los Angeles. He built the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, the line of which, long-owned by the Union Pacific, runs just south of the Homestead, is the namesake of a library at U.C.L.A. built his son, William A., Jr., who also was the founding benefactor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and, in the early 1910s, built, for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Mary Andrews Clark Memorial Home, named for his mother.

This latter facility, the origins of which date to suggestions by Clark’s sisters and the 1909 purchase of the land, was designed by Arthur B. Benton, the architect best known for his work on the exuberant Mission Inn hotel in Riverside, but who also designed the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, completed in 1927, the year of the architect’s death, and of which Walter P. Temple was major donor. In addition to designing houses, churches, and working on mission restoration projects (he was a founder of the Landmarks Club), Benton worked on several structures for the local chapter of the YWCA and the YMCA, which may have caught the eye of Clark and his sister, Mary Margaret Miller, a top official at the Los Angeles YWCA.

Los Angeles Times, 30 October 1910.

An early notice of the plans for the institution was in late November 1910 when an article about the YWCA in the Los Angeles Times made reference to “former Senator Clark’s recent gift of $150,000 to the association for a woman’s dormitory on Loma drive, to be known as the Mary Andrews Clark Memorial Home.” This area was once known as Crown Hill and to the south was the substantial estate of Isaac N. Van Nuys. By summer 1911, Benton’s plans were complete and shared with excited members of the Association, including advisory board members, such as Clark’s brother and business partner, J. Ross; United States Senator Frank P. Flint; Dr. W. Jarvis Barlow, whose sanitarium at Elysian Park remains in operation today; and Valentine Peyton, who made his fortune in mining, briefly owned by the Mt. Lowe Railway and who was a rancher and citrus grower in Chino, La Verne and San Bernardino.

The Times reported in July that Benton’s plans were sent to New York and then to Europe, where he was presumably vacationing, for Clark’s review, upon approval of which, they were returned to a special committee headed by his sister and including nine others. It was added that the building would accommodate 176 residents with each to have a private bath; sleeping porches for those who preferred “an open-air sleeping room;” a large reception room and adjoining parlors; a library; a lecture room; a gymnasium; a sewing and work room; and a hospital ward.

Los Angeles Express, 7 July 1911.

An August Times article called the home “an institution for comfort and uplift” and reproduced an architectural drawing of the front elevation. The piece mentioned that, while Mary Margaret Miller was handling the oversight of the project, J. Ross Clark was the spokesperson. Among the details provided was that the front courtyard between two projecting wings would be about 11,000 square feet and provide “an open-air terrace, with seats, flower beds, and a fountain.” Of 130 projected rooms, fifty would be for two women to occupy. Moreover, “the arrangements for social life will be admirable,” with the aforementioned common spaces on the first floor, while a bowling alley was also stated to be in the works. It was added that the building of the home would drive up real estate values in that section of the city, as well.

By fall, there had been changes made and the Los Angeles Record of 7 October noted that the facility was to have 120 dormitory rooms with lavatories and toilets; 15 washrooms for residents to share; a chapel; the reception room and parlors; a dining room and kitchen; and “a service department.” As to materials, the walls were brick with interior hollow tile partitions; reinforced concrete columns inside; reinforced concrete floors; a clay tile roof; trim of pine and hardwoods; tile floors and wainscoting in the bathrooms; and other features. The cost at that point was pegged at $180,000.

Times, 11 August 1911.

On 10 November, the ground-breaking ceremony took place with a reading of the 103rd Psalm, a short speech and a benediction by men of the cloth; the turning of the first shovelfull of dirt by the YWCA’s president and a predecessor also taking a symbolic pass with the shovel. Three months later, Clark made the trip out from the east to, in addition to checking in with his railroad and other business projects, participate in the laying of the building’s cornerstone.

As 400 persons gathered for the ceremony, he began his remarks, covered by the Times, by observing “we are gathered here today on this picturesque and commanding position, overlooking the greater part of this wonderful and beautiful city, to dedicate the corner-sttone of a building which means that the cares and the burdens of thousands of struggling young women will be made lighter and that they will enjoy the comforts and pleasures of home life that will qualify them for the higher and more responsible duties devolving upon them in later walks of life.”

Los Angeles Record, 7 October 1911.

The use of the word “commanding” is interesting in terms of this powerful man’s persepective about “position,” while his assumption that residents of the home were only working until they could get married and bear children and, thereby, take on their proper roles through “the higher and more responsible duties” is also notable. In the continuing evolution of the occupancy of the structure, it was noted that there would be 150 rooms. Among the speakers were more of the prominent religious figures in the city, along with Mayor George Alexander and the YWCA chapter president. Clark’s sister, brother (and his wife), and namesake son (and his spouse), were present.

Placed in the stone was a box with a photo and brief biography of Mary Andrews Clark; a bio of Senator Clark and a copy of the letter announcing the building of the home; a pamphlet about the local YWCA chapter, photos of its three presidents, and its most recent annual report; a Bible; currency; portions of local newspapers; and the day’s program. Continuing in his remarks, Clark prognosticated that “this manifestation of interest presages that success for the undertaking which will undoubtedly wield a great influence that will be felt during the centuries to come.” He added,

This structure is intended to provide comfort and a retreat from the cares of toilsome lives, to exalt the standard of womanhood and is also intended to perpetuate the memory of a noble woman.

Clark then paid high tribute to his mother, stating that she provided assistance to the sick and needy wherever she resided, including in Los Angeles. Observing that an undertaking of the magnitude involved with the home, he praised the YWCA for its work, stating “I am convinced that no other association is so well qualified to assume the responsibility of management of an institution of this kind.”

Record, 11 November 1911.

After everything was completed, including the installation of the furnishings, and the home was ready for opening, Clark continued, “I will convey that property to that association with the understanding that it shall be conducted and operated and be made self-sustaining at the lowest minimum of actual cost consistent with the maintenance of approved standards of living that will insure health and comfort and the simple and wholesome refinements of life to the occupants thereof.” The benefactor then asked that God “grant His everlasting protection to the institution so long as it may survive the vicissitudes of time and vouchsafe His blessing alike to those who may guide its destiny and to those who may enjoy its hospitality.”

By summer, the structure was ready for the covering of its French Second Empire style mansard roof, after which extensive landscaping work was to take place prior to the official opening, projected to be several months away. Not surprisingly, as the cost inched toward $200,000 or more, the completion was delayed a little longer, so that the dedication took place in February 1913. Even then, there was a couple of days postponement as the 72-year old philanthropist came down with a heavy cold.

Times, 10 February 1912.

By late January, the Los Angeles Express reported that number of sleeping rooms was set at 44 per upper floor, meaning there were 132 in total, with a capacity of some 200 women residents. The partially submerged basement was to have 18 rooms and a parlor for live-in help, as well, along with the gymnasium, bowling alley, sewing room, utility rooms, while the hospital ward was on this level, but actually above ground because of the contour of the land. The first floor, described in part above, included birch finishes and a Tennessee marble wainscot in the dining room and a tiled lobby and vestibule.

As the dedication date approached, it was stated that only the first floor would be ready to public access, so a mid-February opening date seemed to be in question, but there would be events to allow for later review by the public of the entirety of the structure. When the dedication was held on 8 February, the weather was gloomy, but, with the large assembly, which had a stage, completed, the speechifying was held indoors. Clark again paid homage to his mother, who died eight years prior at 91, noting that it had been a quarter of a century or so prior, as the Boom of the 1880s was underway, when she came to the Angel City and brought her ministrations to the needy and the poor with her.

Times, 10 February 1912.

Saying that his mother was universally loved and admired, Clark proclaimed that “to the enthusiasm inspired by the zealous and tireless work and the noble needs of Mary Andrews Clark are we now indebted for this substantial tribute to her memory.” He added the felt “joy and exultation” that he could do something to honor her, in collaboration with the YWCA. Noting that the project was “not to be the work of a year or a generation,” he intoned that the operation of the home was to be integral to the operations of what “is reputed to the be the largest and most active [branch of the YWCA] in the entire country.”

Clark spoke at length of wanting to do something substantial and beneficial and of struggling to find an appropriate philanthropic endeavor until his sisters, “who knew our mother’s hopes and wishes better than I did,” suggested the concept of the home. The problem of management was solved by working with the YWCA, who were to receive the property that day from their benefactor.

Express, 24 January 1913.

He pledged that all that was wanted for its operation would be provided by him so “that there shall be no discordant notes to mar the harmony of the premises so that the occupants thereof and all others who may enter its portals may be impressed with the feeling and the charm that is suggestive of the ideal and model home.” He and his brother planted two ivy cuttings taken from a plant he gave to his mother on returning from Ireland some thirty years prior, while their sister read a poem by a brother-in-law, the Rev. Dr. Newell that read:

Your home was in the Emerald Isle

Long ago, Ivy Vine;

Clambering palace walls were seen

Or decking pleasant cot[tage] with green

Long ago, Ivy Vine.

A staffer for the YWCA told the assemblage that 109 women had applied for admission to the home but that it would be just a short time before all 200 accommodations were taken and the expected charge for board was to be between $4-8 per week, though the price would be set when the cost of operation was determined. The first residents moved in on the 20th.

Record, 8 February 1913.

Public access to the facility did not take place for another three months, but on two Tuesday nights in May in two-hour slots in the afternoon and evening, the home was opened for guests to be welcomed by a managers’ board and committees for the home and entertainment and hospitality, and members of the Clark family. That first Tuesday, the 13th, it was reported by the Times that some 3,000 visitors toured the facility.

The paper noted “the affair assumed proportions of the atmosphere of a very large and delightful social function,” but lamented that “for every man present there were fifty women.” It added, “”it was quite a shame to have such a lavish wealthy of perfectly gowned womanhood so little appreciated except by one another.” As to the residents, it was stated that “those lucky enough to secure quarters at the home, which is fully occupied, include teachers, milliners, dressmakers, stenographers and clerks. It is really like a large business woman’s clubhouse.”

Times, 14 May 1913.

In early February 1914, the Times wrote of the first annual report for the Clark Home and it was observed that “occasionally the criticism has been made that only young women who are receiving large salaries can afford to board at the home.” It was reported that average weekly cost by resident was just a shade over $5 per week, with two meals provided on weekdays and three on weekends with no charge for use of the laundry or sewing rooms and ten cents an hour charged for an electric iron, while expenses amounted to just 39 cents less than that. Any profit went into a sinking fund for maintenance and repairs.

Educational opportunities included magazine and book clubs; Bible study; and lectures and entertainment, while for physical activity, there was bowling, tennis, dancing and use of the gymnasium. It was reported that “the management of the home encourages a friendly and wholesome social life.” Some boarders were held up as models of inspiration because of “success in business and professional lines.” As to the 193 residents, over 30% were stenographers, a little less than half that were instructors and a like number office helpers, 10% were in sales; and there were sixteen bookkeepers, ten dressmakers, six nurses and a smattering of librarians, artists, secretaries, manicurists and milliners.

Times, 5 February 1914.

As to its benefactor, Clark died in March 1925 at the age of 86 at his palatial New York City mansion off the east side of Central Park that was said to have cost a staggering $7-10 million to build. It was sold shortly afterward for $3 million to a developer who razed the mammoth structure and built the high-end residential building that stands today nearly a century later. His youngest child, Huguette, inherited much of Clark’s huge fortune and lived mostly in seclusion until her death in New York in 2011 at age 104. While Clark strove, through projects like the Los Angeles residential home, to burnish his image, a bitter jibe by Mark Twain, written in 1907 as Clark finshed his sole six-year term as a senator from Missouri (his bribing state legislators for the seat was so egregious that it was said it played a role in the 1913 amendment to the Constitution that mandated direct election by voters, something figures like Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse occasionally call for repealing). Twain wrote:

He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since [New York City’s Tammany Hall machine leader William M.] Tweed’s time.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection is a real photo postcard from the late 1910s or perhaps early 1920s of the Clark Home with its imposing size and impressive architecture. After thirty-five years of Clark women exercising significant control of the facility, however, the YWCA decided to take over the assignment of committee members. This led to a suit by the Clarks charging financial mismanagement and other misdeeds, as well as assertions that the YWCA included communists in its ranks—this being the McCarthy Era. The legal action was settled in the Association’s favor and it continued to operate under the same strict standards until the late 1980s.

The Whittier Narrows earthquake of 1987 led to the facility’s closure and the building was sold three years later to a non-profit and a developer who rehabbed the structure for $16 million, derived from public and private sources, for low-income housing for single workers. The building is a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.

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