Saturday, April 30, 2011

Women's Club of Huntington Beach

The historic Women’s Club of Huntington Beach clubhouse burned to the ground in a fire that started near the back of the building around 3:00 a.m. this morning (April 30, 2011). The little board and batten building was destroyed in minutes, according to neighbors, with the fire department putting out the very last of the flames about an hour later.

This fire may only register a small blip on the radar of most Huntington Beach citizens. But this 101-year old building -- and the philanthropic organization it housed for 95 years -- was an important part of the city's history.

This 1910 surplus school building was purchased in 1916 by the Women’s Club of Huntington Beach and moved to its current location on the 400 block of 10th Street. The Club had spent four years raising the money for the land and structure through a series of events including musical productions, a mock trial, a New Years Eve ball and a minstrel show. The photo below shows the clubhouse the day it opened, in Oct. 1916.

The Huntington Beach Women's Club itself was formed in January 1908 – seven years after the town was founded and a year before Huntington Beach incorporated as a city. Seven women attended the first meeting, which was held at Florence Blodgett’s home. It was formed as a local chapter of the Federation of Women’s Clubs – an organization with its own rich history.

Early members of the Women’s Club of Huntington Beach included such notable pioneer names as Newland, Talbert, Shank, Tarbox, Huston and Howard. These women were probably the best civilizing influence the town ever had.

Historian Barbara Milkovich wrote that "Because [the Club] attracted the wives of business and political community leaders, it had the opportunity to reflect and/or influence the development of public policy within the city. …[The Club] was a stabilizing force within the community during the transition period from religious resort to oil field.”

(The photo below shows members in the clubhouse on July 4, 1951, still in their parade finery.)

Over the years, the Women’s Club successfully promoted the incorporation of Huntington Beach and the creation of a municipal gas system, created weed abatement and civic beautification programs, was instrumental in founding the PTA, and even provided trash barrels downtown to discourage littering.

Perhaps most memorably, they joined forces with the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Board of Trade to create a private library association in 1909. Their book collection and reading room were the beginnings of what would later be adopted by the city fathers as Huntington Beach's first public library. Even then, several members of the Women's Club remained on the Library Board. This was, remember, before women could even vote (which was another cause the Women's Club advocated for).

Later, the Women's Club upgraded the city's modest public library by requesting and receiving funds for a larger "Carnegie Library."

The Club also held regular educational programs at a time when opportunities for education were limited for women.

During World War I, the Huntington Beach Women's Club -- which held an anti-war stance -- took the lead in forming the local Red Cross Auxiliary.

(The photo of the clubhouse interior, below, was taken by Barbara Milkovich in the 1980s.)

The City's oil boom in the 1920s increased the local population dramatically, and increased the Club's membership from 55 members to over 200 members. In 1926, the clubhouse was remodeled and given an addition in back.

The fact that children were playing on the dangerous oil equipment all over town led the Women's Club to lobby for the first city playgrounds -- an amenity that can now be found in nearly every park in town.

Another concern related to the oil boom was the prevalence of dance halls frequented by oil workers (a.k.a. roughnecks). The Women's Club got the city to regulate and patrol these ubiquitous "dens of vice" -- thereby bringing up the whole tenor of the city.

Milkovich wrote that the Club also "provided the entire community with a secular intellectual and social outlet." They held banquets, dances, and other social functions, and rented out their clubhouse for other special events as well. This tradition has continued up until today.

As a senior at Edison High School, the Huntington Beach Women's Club gave me a scholarship and invited my mother and me to a very nice luncheon at the clubhouse. It was the first time I ever went inside the building, and it seems it was also the last.

As soon as I heard the news about the fire this morning, I drove over, surveyed the damage, and took some photos. Walking back to my car, I passed some folks observing the fire's aftermath.

"What a shame," I said, motioning toward the rubble and shaking my head sadly.

"Well, it didn't really fit into the rest of the neighborhood," one of them said.

"It was here long before you arrived," I pointed out.

"Oh, but it was an eyesore, and they were always holding big events right here in our neighborhood. Maybe this fire was a blessing in disguise."

The only way to stifle my urge to scream at them was to get in my car and drive away.


Anonymous said...

Obviously, those people who live near that “eyesore” have no idea of all the important HB milestones that occurred because of the Woman’s Club. Goodness! Another piece of OC History gone! I would have wanted to scream at them, too!

Connie Moreno said...

Chris, good thing is was you because I would not have kept my mouth shut.

Steph said...

Did they keep their archives at the clubhouse? It would be a double shame if they went up in flames along with the building.

(It seems you have *some* images at the OC Archives.)

p.s. ...and what a poignant way to close out Preservation Week.

CoxPilot said...

After looking at Google street view of the women's club building, I could see why it (was) burned down. It obviously didn't fit in with the other condos and homes, and probably did create a traffic problem when activities were held. (Like you say; they were there first!) It would be interesting to investigate how many of those "good" folks placed complaints with the city of Huntington Beach of this "eyesore" on their precious street.

Chris Jepsen said...

An interesting point, CoxPilot. In any case, I will be curious to see what the fire investigation turns up.

Steph: To my knowledge, no historical records were kept in the building. But I'm getting that information second hand.

Major Pepperidge said...

"Eyesore", yeesh. I wonder if arson is suspected?

Dave said...

"Oh my God!This building was like soooo old!Why was it here anyway?".Chris,you have remarkable restraint.I haven't been "home" in years,but I'm sure when I do I'll be highly disappointed in downtown H.B.When I moved north in the early 80's Huntington Beach still had some of it's character,from what I've heard it's mostly gone.
Oh,Edison high?My goodness,I'm supposed to hate you Chris!I spent my first 3 high school years at F.V.H.S.,you guys were our big rival.Never mind the fact that both campuses were absolutely identical as far as architecture and layout.
I did finish up at H.B.H.S. my senior year when my Mom and I moved to "Beachwalk" the condo complex I assume is still there,50 yards from the house,a gate that led on to the field of the school,sweet!Of course with my newly minted drivers license and my beautiful 1963 Ford Falcon ( which was as old as I was),I'd drive to school.It literally took longer to drive there then to walk,but I had a car!Oh,to be 17 and stupid again......Scratch that,guess I'll stay with 47 and a hell of a lot wiser.

Anonymous said...

That is horrible. Every time we loose a contributing historic structure we loose part of our memory. Counter to what the guy said, the real eyesores are the ugly condos they built up around that beautiful old building.

DanGarion said...

Wow those people sound like idiots. Oh no, they hold community events and functions! Very sad to hear about this.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear this. Keep up the good work Chris! Your excellent blog is a bright light of enlightenment and meaning in the fight against ignorance, so please don't let this get you down.

The pitiful comments you describe are examples of a rampant lack of common empathy and understanding of one's own community.

When people out of selfishness separate themselves from others based on external class differences, don't understand their environment and what is actually around them, do not understand or appreciate others, their mindset can best and unfortunately be described as sick. They are part of a bumper crop of sociopaths sad to say...

-An HB kid in exile

Aaron said...

Thanks for the post. Another piece of history lost to fire. Questionable curcumatances perhaps? Reminds me of when the SR Bowen machine shop (Lake and Yorktown) burnt down in 1989. At least it wasn't as bad as when the city purchased the Huntington Beach Inn from the Elks and deliberately burned it down.

Chris Jepsen said...

Aaron: Don't forget what everyone called the "redevelopment fire" at the Northam Ranch House -- directly across Yorktown from City Hall.