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The Figueroa Hotel: The Surprising Feminist Origins of a Sexy Downtown Staple

I walk up to the Figueroa Hotel on a sleepy Saturday afternoon. I say sleepy, because this stretch of Figueroa Street -- a stone's throw from bustling L.A. Live -- is just that. The facade of the thirteen-story hotel is stenciled in faded paint, and green plants hang from an arched balcony on the second floor. The whole place has a rustic frozen-in-time quality, a sort of Cuban feel, and the sidewalk is empty, except for two chauffeurs leaning against a town car. They watch me as I try to figure out where the entrance to the lobby is. One doorway, labeled Fig Street Café, is locked. As I peer inside, I see tables and chairs stacked on top of each other in the semi-darkness. I finally find the correct entrance, under a green awning, and make my way into the dim lobby.

The vaguely "foreign" feel intensifies in the intimate, quiet lobby. The hotel bills itself as having Moroccan décor, but it is really a mishmash of exotic styles. A Buddha figure stands next to a painting of an early Spanish explorer, and two Asian statues sit atop a grand piano. The walls are partially covered in ceramic tiles, the floor is sleek cobbled stone, and the arched ceilings and skylights are accentuated by decorative stenciling. Most of the light comes from elaborate hanging lamps and bits of stained glass. It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust before I see that there are two women silently working behind the old timey front desk. Somehow, this small place feels very empty and cavernous -- a bit like a deserted hotel in some old B-movie about somewhere exotic, somewhere that mostly masculine, lost souls glamorously dwell.

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The signs pointing me down a set of stairs to the "Nomad Bar" seem to promise more of the same, so I go through an arched corridor to the pool area. There is an empty veranda bar straight out of a Hemingway novel, with a sort of thatched wooden roof, just waiting for a soused man in a white suit, a Panama hat and tall tale to tell. The sliding wall to the pool is covered in brilliantly colored panels of glass. The pool itself is dominated by scraggly cacti and dusty plants, and nobody sits at the chicly worn tables and chairs that surround it. A man appears with a suitcase. He is looking for his wife, and once she is found, he vanishes.

How far this sexy, mysterious feeling, tourist hotel has come from its origins. While its present incarnation feels like a place whose past is filled with secrets and sins, it was originally erected to serve the opposite purpose. It was built by the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) as a haven for the industrious American -- the bright eyed, the sober, the Christian, the feminine. If you really squint, you can almost see the trailblazing business women of the past century making long distance calls at the telephone counter, swimming laps in the clear pool, or conducting political meetings in the lobby.

Almost.

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares


By and for Femininity

"Perhaps the best way to sum us up is to say that if an activity benefits or concerns women or girls, the YWCA does it, has done it, or will do it." 1
"The Hotel Figueroa, exclusive women's hostelry, represents an investment of considerably over a million dollars and is one of the largest individual financial transactions ever consummated by a body of organized women." 2

"Maude N. Bouldin is the only woman in the hotel world claiming the title of managing director and with said title represented her hotel, the Hotel Figueroa, at the state convention of the Hotel Men's Association at Arrowhead. She went alone, a little in doubt as to just what kind of reception would be accorded a woman in the hotel world, she said, but the reception she received, the courtesies shown her and her initiation into the hotel world of California was one she will never forget. Women as well as men clamored to meet Mrs. Bouldin, who has a personality all her own." 3

The YWCA was formed in England in 1855 by a group of concerned ladies to help working women alone in industrial London, and nurses who had returned from the Crimean War. Contrary to popular belief, it formed independently of the more well-known YMCA, and its aims were more toward social welfare than social communion. The movement quickly spread to America -- first in Boston in 1866, and then to other major U.S. cities. In 1893, eleven women gathered in a Methodist church on Broadway to convene the first meeting of the Los Angeles YWCA. Mrs. Z.D. Mathuss was president, and Miss Clara Yale Morse was secretary. Within five months, the membership had grown to more than 200.

The Los Angeles YWCA's stated aims were to enhance the "the physical, social, and spiritual welfare of young women." 4 A headquarters was leased downtown, and "cycling, rowing, and outing clubs" were formed. Also, a luncheon, called "noon rest," was offered to women working downtown. In 1913, the Mary Andrews Clark Residence was opened at 306 Loma Drive, as a home for single working women. Three years later, the Hollywood Studio Club, a chaperoned dormitory for aspiring starlets, was opened at 1215 Lodi Place. This happened after a local librarian became worried about the young actresses who congregated in her library basement to read plays.

But the YWCA was not only interested in women who society deemed alone or vulnerable. Throughout the early 1900s, women increasingly entered the white collar workforce. However, women traveling alone were still looked at suspiciously. They needed a place to stay while in town on business, where they felt safe, respected, comfortable, and catered to. So the Los Angeles YWCA, headed by Mrs. Chester C. Ashley, bought land at 939 South Figueroa Street. They used money raised from supporters, and two mortgage bonds, to finance the 409 room, concrete and steel structure. Construction began in 1925.

The hotel was finished ahead of schedule, and dedicated on August 14, 1926, with a night of dance and entertainment. More than 300 guests, including representatives of practically every woman's club in Los Angeles, filled the hotel's new Fountain Ballroom. A smaller group of supporters toured the new facilities. The top nine floors were exclusively reserved for "business, travelling, and professional" women, while the lower floors were available to men and their families. The YWCA hired Maude N. Boldin as the managing director of the hotel. The coffee shop was to be run by Florence Gaskell and Ruth E. Allen, who had previously worked at the popular Schrafft's in New York.

The humming life of the business woman is evident in many of the design details -- there were telephone booths, receiving nooks, a travel bureau, a cashier, a newsstand, a writing salon, a public stenographer and a beauty salon. Social life was encouraged -- golf courtesy cards were issued, swimming lessons were available at the pool, and bridge parties and musical entertainment were offered weekly. And the men were not completely ignored -- they received their own smoking room and a shoe shine parlor.

The "conservatively elegant" hotel was designed in the Spanish theme, and all the rooms were given Spanish names. The lobby, AKA the "sala de recepcion," was particularly sophisticated, with shelves of books to read, and areas for "informal business conferences." The reception room and salon were accentuated with wrought iron finishes. The draperies were a goldenrod satin with black patent leather trimmings. The ladies retiring room was finished in rose and green, and was lit by wrought-iron lamps, while the beauty salon was done in gold and black. The arched corridor leading to the pool was hung with Spanish tapestries, many on loan from prominent Los Angeles ladies.

Rear exterior of Hotel Figueroa, ca. 1940 | USC Digital Library

Hotel interior, 1926 | Dick Whittington Studio Collection, USC Digital Library

Hotel interior, 1926 | Dick Whittington Studio Collection, USC Digital Library


Club World

"Oh, no, men are not better playwrights than women -- Zoe Akins, Charlotte Thompson, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Olga Printlau -- all clients of mine and the last three California women. Oh, of course, we took up scenarios, too. I have a partner, Mr. Giffen, who attends to that. I can't remember the names of pictures -- oh yes, 'The Birth of a Nation' was one I sold to Griffith." 5
"Women of the world have an increasingly important part to play in the rehabilitation of the nations and the establishment of permanent international peace." 6
"We have come to Los Angeles for our playtime after a lot of hard, interesting work." 7

The hotel quickly became a mecca for business women and club women. In an era when almost all news of women was still confined to the "of interest to women" pages, the Figueroa Coffee Shop and the hotel's salons became a place where philanthropic and professional organizations could meet. In October of 1926, a tea was given by the Women's Law Enforcement Committee of Southern California, in honor of the Women's Christian Temperance Union's annual convention. Hundreds of women attended. That same fall, the L.A. Advertising Association played hostess to the California Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs. And this was just the tip of the iceberg.

The Eisteddfod Association, the Chicago Women's Club, the Girl Scouts, the California State Diatec's Association, the California League of Women Voters, the Neighbors of Woodcraft, The Employed Officers of Southern California, the Presidents Association, the Friday Morning Club, the Women's International League, the Pacific Women's Association, the Women's Advertising Club, the Business Women's Legislative Council, the Shubert-Wa-Wan Club, the Auxiliary for the McKinley Home for Boys, the Southern California Women's Press Club, and the Women's Republican Study Club, are just some of the organizations that met at the hotel over the next three decades. And, of course, the YWCA held numerous events at the property, moving their headquarters to the back of the building.

So many fascinating women stayed at the Figueroa over the years. Alice Karuser, a pioneering play agent and dead ringer for Queen Victoria, breezed through town in 1929 for the opening of a play she was producing, and proudly proclaimed, "I'm an old maid." Then there was Valeria H. Parker, the director of field extension at the American Social Hygiene Association. In the spring of 1928, she became involved in a feud with a "broadcasting Methodist minister" when she dared to say that the city showed marked improvement in its morals since she had run the city's social hygiene board in 1922. The preacher heartily disagreed, claiming the city was more sinful than ever and that she was in the pocket of city hall. That same year the Korean educator Helen Kim, dean of the Ewha College in Seoul and head of the Korean YWCA, stayed as a guest of the L.A. YWCA. She was on the last leg of a world tour, in which she asked for the world's help in securing better education opportunities for her country's girls.

It was not all progress and triumph. The hotel soon switched to a more traditional business model, opening floors reserved for women to males in a bid to increase business. By February of 1928, President Ashley was forced to announce a campaign to raise $300,000 to pay off the mortgages the YWCA held on the hotel. A male manager, Perle A. Young, was hired to run the newly unisex hotel.

The opening up of the hotel to a wider clientele proved to be a success. The YWCA annual meeting was held at the hotel in January, 1929. Here, Mrs. Ashley announced that the hotel was now "meeting all interest, taxes and insurances on the building, as well as the taxes of the entire association," and that gifts of $64,000 had met all indebtedness. 8 She assured the 1,500 members of the local YWCA that their financial future looked brighter than ever. Ten months later, the stock market crashed, and the YWCA eventually lost the Hotel Figueroa.

Although the building was sold, the YWCA kept their headquarters there until 1951. The hotel continued to be a special place for women. In 1933, there was an exhibition in the lobby featuring "Women Painters of the West." Friday musical evenings were presented by Daisy Sinclair. In 1934, there was a lecture by "world traveler" and member of the Baha'i faith, Margarita Orlov, on the "New World Order." The debut of writer Mary Carr Moore's opera "The Flute of Jade Happiness" was that same year.

During the Second World War, the YWCA's suite of rooms was converted into a "dry night club" one night a week for area high school students. 9 The Y was busier than ever, heavily involved with running USO clubs downtown, and finding housing and jobs for women thrust into the labor market because of the war.

The hotel kept its socially conscious and political image into the 1950s. Many prominent male and female international leaders and thinkers, officials of the YWCA, YMCA, and the Salvation Army stayed at the hotel over the years. Press conferences were often held in the lobby and in private rooms. Intellectuals gave speeches decrying racism, sexism, juvenile delinquency, and communism. As late as 1955, two Salvation Army officials, one returning from the Philippines, and the other decamping to Manila, bumped into each other in the hotel's lobby and proceeded to spend the whole day there, discussing their work.

Woman lounging inside one of the guest rooms | Dick Whittington Studio Collection, USC Digital Library

Hotel staff | Dick Whittington Studio Collection, USC Digital Library

Women meet at hotel lobby | Dick Whittington Studio Collection, USC Digital Library


Right out of Casablanca

As downtown declined, so did the Figueroa. There were still interesting stories, of course. In 1963, the entire hung jury in a murder trial found itself "hung" in one of the hotel's elevators for forty five minutes, until they were rescued. They came to a decision shortly afterward. In 1967, Pricilla Williams, profiled in the Times as the first black female to dance and work with elephants as part of the Ringling Brothers Circus, stayed at the hotel. According to her, it was a luxury since her usual home was the circus train.

By the '70s, the Figueroa was primarily a residence hotel with many residents paying by the week. Native Swede Uno Thimansson bought the hotel in 1976, and set about renovating it and remodeling it into the eclectic Moroccan retreat we know today. By the 1980s, it was a solidly affordable tourist hotel once again.

The side of the Hotel Figueroa has often served as a giant canvas for giant mural ads, as well as inspiration for Los Angeles' renowned street artists. In 1981, as part of the L.A. bicentennial, pioneering Chicano artist Carlos Almaraz painted "Sunset on the Fig," "a mural of a mural on the side of the Hotel Figueroa with a blazing pile of junked cars leaning against a tilting city hall." 10 The opening of the Staples Center in 1999 had a rejuvenating effect on the hotel. It has become known for its famous Grammy after parties, and as a place where athletes congregate after a game. In 2004, KCRW radio personality Sandra Tsing Loh addressed a rally/protest held in her honor at the hotel, after she was fired for swearing on air.

And what of the Los Angeles YWCA? They are still thriving, with headquarters now located on the seventh floor of 1020 South Olive Street. The organization continues to provide services to women and girls all over the city. Its updated mission statement lists its goals as "eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all." 11 Noble ideas can take many forms, and for a brief period in the last century, they flourished in a hotel right on the corner of Tenth and Fig.

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares
_____

1"YWCA 113 years old and goes on growing" Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1968.
2"Women's hostelry unique" Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1926
3"Hotel women welcomed to state confab" Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1926
4"YWCA 113 years old and goes on growing" Los Angeles Times, October 14, 1968.
5"Many successful plays sold by Alice Kauser" Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1929
6"Australian woman in peace talk" Los Angeles Times, October 7, 1933
7"Leaders of YWCA in Southland" Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1928
8"Gains reported in YWCA work" Los Angeles Times, January 25, 1929
9"'Y' paces day's needs through its 50 years" Los Angeles Times, December 3, 1944
10 "Chicano artist of urban scene died of AIDS" Los Angeles Times, 1989
11 YWCA website

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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