La Jolla Woman’s Club’s charming building to reach its centennial in 2014
La Jolla Woman’s Club
■ Members: 175
■ Dues: $50 a year
■ Perks: Monthly luncheon with lectures and cultural presentations, card games, book club, yoga instruction and more
■ Membership information: lajollawomansclub.org or (858) 454-2354
By Pat Sherman
The La Jolla Woman’s Club will observe the centennial of its historic clubhouse and grounds at the corner of Draper Avenue and Silverado Street next year — and its members have a lot of history to celebrate.
Founded in 1894 by seven women as a reading club, it was clear early on that club members wouldn’t sit idly rehashing Jane Austen romances (though they may have relished her works now and again).
Guest speakers included women such as author and political activist Helen Keller and suffragist and women’s rights activist Lucy Stone (reportedly the first recorded American woman to retain her father’s surname after marriage).
Change was coming to the sparsely populated Village of La Jolla (including the founding of a post office and the addition of the La Jolla Railway). With an increase in visitors and residents came an increase in the exchange of ideas.
Chief among them for La Jolla women was the right to vote and to have legal custody of their children. The club would advocate tirelessly for both these issues during its inception, and particularly after newspaper heiress and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps took the reins as president, first from 1901 to 1904, and again, from 1909 to 1910.
“Ellen Browning Scripps’ idea of the Woman’s Club was that it should be a center for educational, cultural, intellectual, artistic, moral and social betterment,” said current club treasurer Noreen Haygood. “I think it was started as a response to all the men’s fraternal organizations that were happening at that time, and, of course, women didn’t have anything like that.”
Following her second term as president, Scripps would go on to pay for the club’s permanent building on Draper Avenue — the first of many La Jolla landmarks she would fund, including the adjacent La Jolla Rec Center and The Bishop’s School.
During its early years, the club was also influential in local and national politics, influencing legislation in support of child labor laws, milk pasteurization and the protection of the state’s redwood trees and national forests. The club also advocated for allowing women to join the board of education and for programs in public schools benefiting children with disabilities.
“There is a terrific amount of admiration and respect for the pioneers of Ellen Browning Scripps’ generation, as well as the ones who came later in the ’60s and ’70s,” Haygood said.
As women gained the right to vote and the country slowly adopted a more egalitarian view of women’s roles in society, the La Jolla Woman’s Club evolved into more of a social club, offering regular monthly luncheons, bridge games and yoga classes.
The club usually meets the first Monday of the month, from October to June. Members include residents from as far as Coronado and Bonita.
To keep the club vital, current co-president Kathy Stewart-Schwan is hoping to attract younger, professional women by offering wine and cheese parties and other business-related mixers.
“We’re just beginning to explore that,” said Stewart-Schwan, a retired Presbyterian pastor and La Jolla High graduate who returned to La Jolla several years ago to be with her mother, Margie Stewart (a longtime club member and the first female to serve on the executive board of the La Jolla Town Council).
Today, the La Jolla Woman’s Club is probably best known for its architecture.
The building is a classic example of Irving Gill’s pioneering modern style, represented by simple geometrical shapes, multiple arches and columns, and a minimum of ornamentation and frills — a style often described as “shaved Spanish,” in reference to Southern California’s colonial Spanish architecture and missions. “We probably have an architect a week come through here,” said the club’s executive director, Sharlene Thompson.
“A couple of weeks ago I had a man who came from Switzerland (to tour the property) with another architect who met him here.”
However, maintaining an architectural marvel and national historic landmark is a constant struggle.
“It’s like feeding the beast,” House Director Pat McGill said. “As soon as one thing gets fixed, another thing breaks down.”
The property’s upkeep is largely funded by renting the facility for weddings and special events, Thompson said.
“The American Chemical Society’s first woman president came here for a lecture and a reception,” she said. “The following year they elected a new woman president, and they came out from Washington, D.C. both times.”
Last year the Association for Women in Science held its gala at the Woman’s Club.
However, McGill noted, with the downturn in the economy wedding parties aren’t spending as much money as they once did, reducing funding for facilities upkeep.
To help protect the building, the Woman’s Club has applied for nonprofit status, which would allow the public to make tax-exempt donations to its maintenance and upkeep. Each year the club also applies for a grant from the Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation. Previous grants have been used to replace the air conditioning system, refinish the maple dance floor and antique, wooden front doors, and repaint the ceiling in the ballroom.
Prior to its centennial, the club hopes to replace existing carpet with porcelain tile, which is less expensive to maintain, and possibly upgrade its audio-visual system.
“We need to look (toward) the future of this property for the next 100 years, especially now that it’s become so famous in architectural circles,” Thompson said.
“We’re very conscious of building an endowment to protect the property. We feel it’s a treasure that really belongs to the community.”
La Jolla Woman’s Club history
■ 1894: The club is founded as a current events and literature club for women to discuss books and magazine articles. One month after forming, suffragist and abolitionist Lucy Stone is a guest speaker. Meeting minutes say “she spoke fearless and bold and right to the point.” Annual membership dues are 50 cents.
■ 1897: The club changes its name to the La Jolla Literary Club and joins the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which has its roots in newspaperwoman Jane Cunningham Croly’s Sorosis Club. Croly started the club in 1868 after she and other women were denied admittance to a New York Press Club banquet honoring Charles Dickens.
■ 1900: The group’s name becomes the La Jolla Woman’s Club.
■ 1912: Membership dues are increased to $2 a year.
■ 1913: The cornerstone for the club’s current building at 7791 Draper Ave. is set in place. The $40,000 building was entirely paid for by La Jolla Philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, and designed by architect Irving Gill. Meeting minutes refer to Scripps as the club’s “fairy godmother.”
■ 1914: The Woman’s Club building opens. Under President Mary Ritter it offers music and drama departments, a chorus, an art and architecture section, social welfare section, girls’ auxiliary, arts and crafts projects, monthly socials and card parties.
■ 1914-18: During World War I, a group called the Mending Mothers sewed twice a week at the club for the soldiers at Camp Kearny military base (today Marine Corps Air Station Miramar). During the war, the club also sponsored the ringing of a noon “Victory Bell,” at St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. The practice swept the country, with President Woodrow Wilson making it a national institution.
■ 1940-42: Clubhouse is turned over to the Red Cross for the production of surgical dressings for the World War II effort. The club is also used as a Civil Defense headquarters in 1941.
■ 1954: The social service section of the club disbands after 27 years.
■ 1973: The City of San Diego designates the building as a local historic landmark.
■ 1974: The building is designated as a national historic landmark.
■ 1975: The city creates a historic zone for the building and its grounds, affording the club a property tax benefit.
— La Jolla Historical Society archives
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