An Apex for the Elite: A Press Photo of the Jonathan Club Building, December 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After nearly 130 years of existence, the Jonathan Club remains one of the most elite, as well as enduring, of the traditional social clubs, which include the California Club, in Los Angeles. Recent decades have involved scrutiny of the institution’s membership policies relating to ethnicity (it notes its diversity on its website) and women (who were allowed to join in 1987 after a vote, purportedly 4-1 in favor of admission, of its members).

The Jonathan reportedly has a $45,000 initiation fee and a $500 monthly fee for what was stated to be 3,600 members six years ago and there are two clubhouses, one in downtown Los Angeles and the other on a private swath of beach in Santa Monica. A 2016 article in The Hollywood Reporter alluded to the membership issues with an “observer” quoted as stating that the club “got a lot of flack for exclusionary admittance policies in the past, but it has done a good job of bringing in people of color.” The piece added that the organization “makes best efforts to be eco- and community-friendly” including using produce from the downtown facility’s rooftop garden as well as support of environmental groups like Heal The Bay.

Los Angeles Herald, 20 May 1894.

In days of yore, there was no doubt that the Jonathan Club and others of its kind were at least some representation of the prototypical “old boys’ clubs,” where the white make powerbrokers of the Angel City gathered to, presumably, guide at least some of the economic and political destinies of the massively growing Los Angeles. Being that the organization was very private (not just in membership, but also in terms of public presence), it is, naturally, not readily knowable how much of the “back room deal” was common in the well-appointed parlors, dining rooms, lounges, bars and other ample spaces of the two facilities.

The featured artifact from the Museum’s collection for this post is a December 1925 press photograph (date stamped the 31st), but likely from earlier in the month, of the brand new 12-story, height-limit, $3 million downtown clubhouse (the beach house was opened two years later). The scale and scope of both facilities is reflective of both the significant growth of the organization and the dramatic transformation of the Angel City and greater Los Angeles in the three decades since the Jonathan Club was launched.

Herald, 9 June 1895.

Those origins were modest, as they often are, with the entity formed in 1894 as a political advocacy group for local Republicans—the party dominating the local scene as well as, generally speaking, nationally. Still, while there was apparently an emphasis on Los Angeles, California and, with an eye to 1896, the national political scene, there was a decided focus on the social, as articles covering meetings in the press discussed members enjoying musical performances and other presentations at its Spring Street quarters.

At least one letter writer, only identified as “C.S.,” to the Los Angeles Herald, mocked the new entity. In the paper’s 9 May 1894 edition, not long after the organization debuted, the correspondent, likely a Democrat, acidly commented:

If the “war-cry of the new Republican club is a fair criterion on which to base an estimate of the intelligence and wisdom of that club, then it must be of a very low order, in fact bordering on the idiotic. So the propose to put up a yellow dog [read: candidate] and sing him into office this year with “Wah-ho-wah, wah-ho-wah, Johnathan, Johnathan [sic], wah-ho-wah;” but they may get left [behind.] Hunger, hardship and misery [from the Depression of 1893] have set the people to thinking, and the coming campaign is one in which uniforms, torch-lights and wah-ho-wah songs will produce but little effect.

In March 1895, there was an announcement that there was to be a reshaping of the organization to a “politico-social club,” but this was followed, within a few months, by a new pronouncement that it was “being merged into a purely social club,” though it was added that there was a “misunderstanding and misstatement of facts” concerning the sudden resignation of its president—who, reportedly, left only because he was moving, not out of protest over the change in direction.

Los Angeles Express, 16 May 1924.

Again, how much of what transpired within the walls of the clubhouse was only a social nature, rather than with economics or politics, is another matter, but, with the enormous expansion of the city in population and wealth, came the decision to move from the quarters on the eighth and ninth floors of the Pacific Electric Building, completed in 1905 and still with us as (what else?) lofts. This entailed the 2,000 members taking out bonds to pay for the structure (“height-limit” meaning a restriction so that downtown Los Angeles would not look like the darkened chasms of Manhattan, parts of Chicago and so on), situated on the northwest corner of Figueroa and 6th streets on land owned by Herman and Joseph Burkhard, the latter having a development called Sunny Slope Acres that was halted and the land sold to Walter P. Temple for his Town of Temple project, which was formed a century ago this coming spring, and a Jonathan Club Building Company was incorporated in March 1924.

The architects were Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver of New York, with the former handling the design work and the latter covering the business, engineering and real estate sides of the enterprise. The pair joined forces in 1921 and an early commission was for the Biltmore Hotel across the west side of Pershing Square and other projects included the Biltmore Theatre adjoining the hotel, the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, the Subway Terminal Building in Los Angeles, and quite a few other renowned hotels nationwide. Schultze later worked on the notable Park La Brea complex, as well.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 21 May 1924.

Among the highlighted features of the structure was the seven-story garage and a solarium with rooftop gardens on adjoining roof sections. In June, Weaver was in town to look into further planning on the building, as well as two edifices on Spring and 7th and in Hollywood for the Hellman Commercial Trust and Savings Bank, and conveniently commented both on the Jonathan and general Angel City building conditions:

Our plans for the Jonathan club will make it the most completely appointed clubhouse in the country. It is but an indication of the general and unprecedented development steadily going on in your city.

Los Angeles as a city represents the fastest and biggest development not only on the coast but nationally. Building activities slumped somewhat in the east but have already caught up, but apparently things are booming here constantly. It really is amazing and I think Los Angeles merchants and property owners owe it largely to the local chamber of commerce. They are the go-getters among go-getters. Of course, that is keeping up this astonishing influx of new inhabitants and new inhabitants means new business and circulation of money.

In early August, excavation work began (a couple of months late, as so often was the case, than originally announced) and it was stated that the building would be completed in record time, some fifteen months. The Los Angeles Times of the 10th commented that “few club structures on the Pacific Coast will compare with this beautiful new building” which “will embody virtually every modern innovation in clubhouse construction.”

Los Angeles Times, 17 April 1925.

Among the features were more than 250 rooms with “every known installation for comfort;” lounges; dining rooms; banquet facilities; sleeping parlors; an assembly hall; and the garage. The exterior trim was to be in terra cotta, while pressed brick, marble, tile and interior finishes of mahogany and marble were also noted for the edifice. An accompanying photo showed officials with an excavator and it was said “several hundred prominent citizens” were on hand for the groundbreaking ceremonies.

Occasional drawings were published in the papers of such elements as the first floor lobby with its limestone walls, colorfully ornamented ceilings and a massive carved-stone fireplace mantel, and the third floor main lounge with other aspects of that level including the main dining room and lounge for members and smaller ones for women with abundant oak paneled wainscoting, travertine walls and other aspects.

Times, 1 November 1925.

As hyped as the grandiose decorative components and the abundant comforts were, there were sometimes reminders that the construction business could be extraordinarily dangerous. On the last day of March 1925, for example, a wheelbarrow loaded with bricks on an eighth-floor scaffold overturned and the contents poured down on another scaffold six floors down. John W. Keary, 34, was hit by the material and tumbled down into the basin, suffering a likely fractured skull and a broken back, while 25-year old Ray Provo, whose shoulder was broken, managed to cling to a girder to escape more serious injuries.

Not much more than two weeks later, another accident took place in which six massive pieces of stone came loose from the third floor and struck a scaffold on which Joe Farquher and Cecil Lilly were standing, but the former, though falling, grabbed a ledge, while the latter reached out to a rope from the scaffold above, both avoiding potentially fatal drops. The construction foreman, described only as “R. Entwhistle” was on the ground below the scaffolding and was hit by “a glancing blow” from one stone. He and Farquher were taken to the hospital with cuts and bruises, but it could have been far worse for the trio.

Express, 1 December 1925.

In September, a bizarre accident took place as the building was nearing completion. Anna Freedman, apparently hired to or already at work as a steward for the club, peered into an open elevator shaft and was struck in the head and killed by a descending car. A strange incident took place a month prior when structural steel worker Albert Ashelton, working on the top floor, decided to squirt water on pedestrians while intoxicated. He was arrested for public drunkenness and the “sky jokester,” as he was termed, was sentenced by a police judge to 20 days in the slammer.

As the clubhouse neared completion, it was highlighted by the 1 November edition of the Times in an article “SOUTHLAND CONSTRUCTION PRESAGES RECORD” with figures given for property valuations on permits that indicated that 1925 was much bigger than the prior year in regional construction with the expectation that the situation would continue to be strong into the following year. With respect to the Jonathan, it was reported that all the remained was interior decoration and the installation of furniture, fixtures and equipment. A month later, the Los Angeles Express published photos of the edifice along with those of the Elks, Shriners and Woman’s Athletic Club to show that these clubhouses “form noteworthy additions to Los Angeles’ increasing architectural beauty.”

Times, 11 December 1925.

Another slight delay occurred as the 1 December grand opening was postponed by a week-and-a-half, but on the 10th, the “palatial mansion” was opened. The following day’s Times recorded that,

Artistic of design, tastefully and beautifully decorated and elaborately furnished, the new home of the exclusive Los Angeles Jonathan Club, a stately $3,000,000 structure at Sixth and Figueroa streets, was visited by hundreds of Angelenos . . . as guests of the club members . . . Visitors literally streamed through the magnificent structure, conscious of the prevailing homey (!) atmosphere and admiring the attractiveness of the twelve-story temple and its many invitingly comfortable rooms.

Among the features mentioned were the athletic club with a gymnasium, pool and handball courts, Turkish bath and locker rooms; a reading room and library; billiard, card and game room with space for 500 persons; the 600-person capacity dining room, which doubled as a ballroom; the women’s dining room and lounge for 350; seven private dining rooms; the 250 sleeping apartments; and the “magnificent” rooftop solarium.

Furnishings topped a half-million dollars and included special designs for china, glassware and silverware, while the main lounge rug was over 2,700 square feet and weight in excess of 3,700 pounds (it would be awfully challenging, even for the power broker members, to sweep much under that rug!) A formal dress banquet the following Monday featured some 500 of the 2,200 resident members (there were an additional 600 men who did not live in the area.)

The photo from Keystone Photo Service shows the imposing structure from a building cater-corner to it, though the surroundings have changed slightly since, as has the social and cultural landscape. It will be interesting to see what is reported publicly about the centennial of the clubhouse when the centennial comes around.

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