From the Homestead Kitchen: Tea Rooms, Sponge Cake, and “A Home for Homeless Babies”

by Gennie Truelock

This may sound odd given the fact that I have worked at the Homestead Museum for over a decade, but I am continually amazed by what I find in the Museum’s collection. Just when I think I have a good grasp on what’s there and the stories that we are able to tell through those objects, I discover something that causes me to frustratingly exclaim, “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” Well, I had a moment like that a few weeks ago. I was searching the Museum’s object database looking for references to Los Angeles tea rooms in preparation for the upcoming program, Something’s Brewing! Women and Tea in 20th Century Los Angeles, where my fellow From the Homestead Kitchen contributors Alex Rasic and Jennifer Scerra, and I will be making and sampling some familiar and not-so familiar (i.e. potentially weird tasting) historic tea and luncheon recipes as we explore how the seemingly simple act of “taking tea” helped change the lives of women. Based on the discussions that the three of us have had so far on the topic, it is really shaping up to be a fun and thought-provoking virtual event. But I digress…I was happily surprised to come across an object that led me to the discovery of an organization run almost entirely by women in Los Angeles that I had never heard of before. The object was of all things, a cook book, and it happened to contain a few recipes from local tea rooms.

Cover of The Castelar Crèche Cook Book, 1922. From the Homestead’s collection. 

“What is Castelar Crèche?” I thought as I scanned the cover of this 1922 publication. “And why does it have recipes from two different Los Angeles tea rooms in it?” I was surprised to see A Home for Homeless Babies written on the bottom half of the cover. “Was this an orphanage?” I wondered. What I discovered was this organization was something quite different.

Drawing of the Castelar Crèche building designed by architects William Dodd and William Richards who also designed many other buildings in Los Angeles including the former J.W. Robinson’s Department Store at 600 West 7th Street; Washington High School, located at 10860 South Denker Avenue; and the Brock and Company Jewelry Store, later Clifton’s Silver Spoon Cafeteria, at 515 West 7th Street. From The Castelar Crèche Cook Book, 1922.

Described in the newspapers of the day as a “boarding house for infants,” Castelar Crèche opened to some fanfare on April 12, 1921, at 818 Castelar Street (Castelar was later renamed North Hill Street in 1960). The Crèche (pronounced cresh, a French word meaning cradle or crib), as the organization became known was created and overseen by a group of well-connected and mostly well-to-do women, including Constance DeMille, wife of film director Cecil B. DeMille; Louisa Guasti, wife of prominent viticulturalist Secundo Guasti; and Estelle Doheny, wife of oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny; along with many others.

This page reads like a Who’s Who of 1920s Los Angeles. From The Castelar Crèche Cook Book, 1922.

Although the tagline “A Home for Homeless Babies” made it sound like it could have been an orphanage, the initial purpose of the organization was not to separate families, but to give those who were lacking financial or familial support and were struggling to provide for infant children due to illness, poverty, or the death of a parent a place where their child could be looked after until a parent was back on their feet or the child turned one year old. Parents were encouraged to visit as often as possible and no fees were charged for the child’s care. According to an article in the Los Angeles Evening Express published on April 7, 1921, one-week before the grand opening:

“The Creche is an innovation locally and answers a well defined need, one that is covered neither by the day nurseries nor the orphanages. Specifically the Creche will serve as a boarding home for babies under 1 year of age. Newborn infants whose mothers are suffering from tuberculosis, will be given expert care in the home during those early months when proper feeding and nursing are vitally important.

For babies bereft of a mother’s care at birth or in the first few months of their lives the Creche will also serve as a special haven. And again the Creche will answer the need of mothers who through force of circumstances are compelled to go out into the world to earn a livelihood during those days when their children are yet infants.”

Los Angeles Evening Express, April 7, 1921

A few of the unique features of the Crèche, especially because segregation was commonly practiced throughout Los Angeles at this time, was that it was open to all races and religions. It also ran a nurse training program in the care of infants that was recognized by the state.

The caption under the newspaper photo reads: “Cribful of Happy Children
left to right—Ronald Rodgers, Louise Carter, Jane Jackson, Lillian Hanson, and Helen Aldrich, part of twenty-five tots in home, protected for year while mothers work.” From The Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1925.

The Crèche never received city, state, or federal funds and was supported mainly through public donations, membership, and a sizable endowment made by its founder, Agnes Connell, wife of Michael J. Connell, an early Los Angeles philanthropist. Sadly, Agnes died in a car accident seven months after its opening. The organization also led many fundraising efforts including the selling of the cook book that started me on this journey of discovery.

Just in time for Christmas! This advertisement for the cook book not only promotes the sale of the book but the organization as well. From The Los Angeles Times, November 19, 1922.
Some creative fundraising taking place here. In case you received the book as a gift or wanted to make an extra donation, this form was included in the cook book. From The Castelar Crèche Cook Book, 1922.

The Crèche continued to operate as an independent organization until 1944. After closing for a few months due to administrative and nursing staff shortages, it partnered with the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity. When the Crèche ceased to function as a “boarding home for babies” is uncertain, but it seems that the organization might have been absorbed by the Catholic Church. The last reference to it that I could find in local papers was in the November 24, 1950, issue of the Catholic newspaper, The Tidings, which mentioned that children from the Crèche, the Los Angeles Orphanage, and those in foster care as part of the Catholic Welfare Bureau were preparing for a Christmas party at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

This was the last mention I could find of Castelar Crèche in local newspapers. From The Tidings, November 24, 1950.

The cook book itself is a very interesting read. Coming in at almost 300 pages, with an average of four recipes per page, it covers everything from soup to nuts. Its recipes come from a variety of sources: individuals, hotel restaurants, country clubs, and even local tea rooms. Its final pages are filled with advertisements for local businesses. It is the recipe for the “Perfect Sponge Cake” from The Copper Kettle Tea Room that I decided to recreate for this post. 

I don’t know if I would say it was a “perfect” sponge cake but it was easy to make. From The Castelar Crèche Cook Book, 1922.
The earliest reference to The Copper Kettle Tea Room that I could find in Los Angeles papers dated to 1908, and like most tea rooms, it was owned and operated by women. You can hear more about that by joining us on Sunday, May 9, at 2 p.m. for Something’s Brewing! Women and Tea in 20th Century Los Angeles. From the Los Angeles Evening Post, February 10, 1908.

This sponge cake is of the fatless sponge variety (no butter), and is the kind of sponge you would use to make a swiss roll. It was a pretty straight-forward recipe, although I have to admit that I had to make it twice! I didn’t read the recipe very carefully the first time around and instead of baking it in a “shallow pan” as suggested, I poured the batter into an 8-inch cake tin. This was a big mistake. Also, the recipe called for 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder to 1 cup of flour, this is a lot of baking powder. Typically, the ratio of leavening to flour is no more than 1 to 1 ¼ teaspoons per cup of flour, but because I used the wrong size pan and I used the amount of baking powder suggested, the cake fell flat. Literally. Although it initially rose fine, when I pulled it from the oven and put it on a cooling rack, the cake sunk in the middle.

Take two- I reduced the baking powder to 1 teaspoon and baked the cake in a jelly roll pan (you can also use a half-sheet pan) and it came out fine. I also decided to add a little something extra to the cake after it cooled, because who wants to eat a plain slice of sponge cake (boring!). Because the recipe came from a tea room, I decided to serve it in a “tea-style,” I sliced the cake in half length-wise and cut 16- 1 ½ inch slices of cake. I spread a strawberry-rhubarb jam that I had in the refrigerator on one side and piped whipped cream over the jam. Then I topped the cream with the other slice of cake and dusted the tops with confectioner’s sugar. Here is how they turned out.

A pretty light bite and perfect for eating with a cup of tea.

If you would like to hear other surprising stories involving women in Los Angeles, or are looking to discover more tea-related recipes, be sure to join us on Sunday, May 9th at 2 p.m., or subscribe to the blog where we will continue to share interesting culinary finds From the Homestead Kitchen.

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks so much, Mattie. We hope you are enjoying the blog. It wasn’t until the 1940s that a cure was discovered for TB. During the 1920s and prior, treatments took the form of either isolating the patient or placing them in a sanitariums in places like Pasadena were the fresh air and sunshine was thought to do some good. There was a great documentary put out by PBS on American Experience called TB in America. You can also find information about various sanitariums in the Los Angeles region by searching our site. Here is one entry in particular that my be of interest to you “Climate and Health Resorts of California” in The Journal of the American Medical Association, 29 October 1887

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