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The Doorway of Champions: Los Angeles Athletic Club and the Pursuit of Civic Glory

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There is a cloistered feeling on the insular, hushed floors of the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The swirl of a fast-changing, ever-moving gritty downtown L.A. rushes all round, but inside the club's building at 431 West 7th Street there is a calm, timeless comfort. Recently, Raven Case, the club's personable membership representative, took me on a tour. We passed through careworn handball and squash courts, darkened yoga studios, and the deserted but brightly lit John Wooden basketball court. Men and women of all ages lifted weights in one room, while an elderly woman did stretches with the aid of a trainer in a private room. Older gentlemen walked briskly around the indoor track. A few retirees swam slow crawls in the beautiful sunlit pool, while mature ladies and young tattooed hipster moms copied the moves of an energetic water aerobics instructor who danced on the side of the shallow end.

Inside the maze-like, scuffed women's locker room, ladies in various states of undress bustled in and out, drying their hair, opening their personalized lockers, or sleeping on daybeds set up by the sauna. Raven seemed to know everybody, and everywhere we went there were pleasantries and shared histories. We walked through the quiet hallways of the Club's public hotel, located on the top three floors of the building, and a cleaning lady let us into a darkened, elegant bedroom. But it was the third floor, recently remodeled by designer Tracy Beckmann, that really knocked my gym socks off. "Everything Tracy touches for us turns to gold," Raven said as we walked through the plush, clubby library, filled with paintings by American landscape masters and accented with rich woods and lush fabrics. There was a to-die for ballroom, a CEO ready bar, and a restaurant with a plentiful breakfast buffet spread out for hotel guests and club members to enjoy.

The third floor is just the beginning of an ongoing multi-phase, multi-year renovation that will transform and modernize the entire building. The sketches for the new facilities, created by the top-notch firm of SRK Architects, show a future Los Angeles Athletic Club straight out of some kind of James Bond fairytale. If it's anything like the third floor, members may be hard pressed to ever venture back into the reality of the jittery surrounding city streets.

Amusement Free of Taint

The Los Angeles Athletic Club was officially birthed by a group who considered themselves the "best young men the city contained." 3 The city in question, Los Angeles, was still a dusty, Wild West outpost with few social outlets available to the decidedly young populace. The first official meeting of the L.A.A.C. was held September 8, 1880, in the downtown law offices of one of these "best young men," a lawyer named Frank Gibson. James B. Lankershim was voted the club's first president, and F.A. Gibson became vice-president. Modeling themselves as a "purely American" version of Germanic health and wellness clubs like L.A.'s Turnverein Society, the L.A.A.C.'s initial charter list boasted 53 members.

The fledgling group rented a "large bare hall" in the old Arcadia block and installed a few pieces of gym equipment. Athletic practices were organized twice a week. Maurice Newmark was proud to be the first member to receive a black eye while sparring with fellow member Joe Binford. Over the next two decades, the club would move three times to bigger and bigger digs, becoming an integral part of the rapidly expanding city's A-list scene. Annual field days, where members competed with other local athletes and clubs in track and field events, bicycle races, and even tug-of-war competitions, attracted thousands of spectators. At "Ladies Nights," eligible young women were invited into the rooms to watch "blushing" members of the club sing, box, juggle clubs, perform routines on the trapeze and horizontal bar, and do gymnastic stunts that ended in "artistic pyramids." The nights ended with dancing till the wee hours of the mornings.

Members pose in front of the club's original location on Spring Street | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club
Members pose in front of the club's original location on Spring Street | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club
Original barber shop | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club
Original barber shop | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club

By 1889, membership had reached nearly 500 men. One of these members was Frank A. Garbutt, who joined the club at only fourteen. He remembered his early days thusly:

Garbutt was not the only future civic leader to become a member of the L.A.A.C. The club's rolls soon included names like Otis, Chandler, Huntington, Doheny, Eaton, and Garland. With Chandler and Otis at the helm, it is no surprise that the Los Angeles Times consistently praised the club in newsprint. They also participated in field days, and one Times reporter couldn't help but poke fun at a rival paper's unfortunate representative:

As tennis, football, boxing, and handball grew in popularity in the mid-1890s, the club continued to expand. But fads are fickle, and by 1900 the club's rapid expansion led to serious financial trouble. On Jan 5, 1901, the old L.A.A.C. officially died.

The club's weight room | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club
The club's weight room | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club
Street scene surrounding the club's original location | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club
Street scene surrounding the club's original location | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club

Eleven Floors of Club Wonderland

On January 3, 1906, a group of businessmen and civic leaders led by sober, industrious, sports mad Frank Garbutt brought the Los Angeles Athletic Club back to life. By February 4, a new clubhouse featuring handball courts, a gymnasium, Turkish baths, a game room, and ladies quarters was opened. The L.A. Times swooned: "Membership has been filling up in an unexpectedly rapid rate all week, some of the most prominent business men in the city being now on the rolls." 8 Newly popular sports like basketball, touted as "faster even than football, clean and calling for the finest of condition," and motor sports brought a fresh energy to the club. 9 But greater things were in the works. By May, 1906, it was reported that steps were already being taken "toward securing a suitable lot upon which to erect a three-story building with accommodations for 1500 members, the ultimate goal of the club." 10

L.A.A.C.'s in-house Mercury Magazine | Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club
L.A.A.C.'s in-house Mercury Magazine | Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club,

In 1907, (the same year the club became a member of the Amateur Athletic Association, greatly increasing its prestige) investors, again headed by Garbutt, bought a lot at 7th Street and Olive for $450,000. In 1911, construction began on a "magnificent eleven story Los Angeles club block" on the lot. Designed by famed architects John Parkinson and Edwin Bergstrom, the $650,000 Beaux Arts Style building was every sporting gentleman's dream. There was a gymnasium Garbutt claimed was "the best in the world," boxing rings, half a dozen handball courts, a library, a beefsteak room finished in "rugged brick", a ballroom, a bar, a dining room, and upper floors with living quarters for single members. Garbutt boasted that there were "fourteen ways to enter and leave the gym," including "by means of sliding poles." 11 Most magnificent of all was the sixth floor pool, said to be the first of its kind in the country. Henry Huntington is said to have suggested the Olympic sized pool be placed here instead of the basement, so that beneficial natural light and air could come in. According to the L.A. Times:

Members like haberdasher James Oviatt were so excited they could not even wait for the elevators to be installed before they moved into the club. The new L.A.A.C. formally threw open its doors during a three-day extravaganza starting June 13, 1912. At a dinner that weekend given for over 600 prominent Angelinos:

The intersection of Olive and 7th Streets, looking south on Olive. L.A.A.C. building is on the right, ca. 1920s | Photo: Security Pacific Bank National Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
The intersection of Olive and 7th Streets, looking south on Olive. L.A.A.C. building is on the right, ca. 1920s | Photo: Security Pacific Bank National Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Members and female guests of the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1912. Frank Garbutt is left forward, and William Garland next to him | Photo: Security Pacific Bank National Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Members and female guests of the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1912. Frank Garbutt is left forward, and William Garland next to him | Photo: Security Pacific Bank National Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The L.A.A.C. immediately became one of the wonders of Los Angeles and a haven for clubby frat types and serious athletes alike. It was also home to many men-about-town, including a young comedian named Charlie Chaplin. He arrived in 1914, and soon moved into the expansive club:

During the 1920s, the club's popularity exploded as sports and leisure became a national obsession. Former Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, trained in the famed pool, as did famous female pioneers like Dorothy Poynton and Georgia Coleman (women, though not technically members, were allowed to train at the facilities). The L.A.A.C. began to greatly expand its portfolio, eventually running the star-studded Riviera Golf Club and several other athletic clubs. Clubmen like William May Garland were also extremely influential in bringing the 1932 Olympics to Los Angeles. The older generation also seriously nurtured up and coming stars in track and field and water sports for the upcoming games. An L.A. Times reporter remembered being summoned to a meeting at the club where:

The reporters' expectations were not disappointed. L.A.A.C. athletes medaled ten times in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. During the heady days of the 1932 LA Olympics, L.A.A.C. athletes medaled 21 times, and the L.A.A.C water polo team won the bronze. These champions included several women. The clubhouse itself was also part of the fun -- it played host to a ball welcoming Olympic hostesses and competitors, and a "smoker" for newspapermen from around the world.

Women track runners of the Los Angeles Athletic Club arrive at the finish line. They are wearing shirts with the letters 'L.A.A.C.' | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Women track runners of the Los Angeles Athletic Club arrive at the finish line. They are wearing shirts with the letters 'L.A.A.C.' | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
The gymnasium of the Los Angeles Athletic Club | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
The gymnasium of the Los Angeles Athletic Club | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The Winged Foot

The 1930s were hard on the L.A.A.C. and its satellite clubs (most of which were eventually shed or closed). As Garbutt aged, his son-in-law Charles F. Hathaway took an increasing role in running the club. Swimming stars like Ester Williams trained at the facilities, and comedian Harold Lloyd was a regular at the handball courts. Garbutt, the club's tireless champion, died in 1947. In 1948, the L.A.A.C sent the largest number of athletes of any institution in the U.S. to the London Olympics. These athletes medaled eleven times. That year, the club's serious financial setbacks were finally resolved. In 1949, after the death of Charles, his son Frank Hathaway became club president. As downtown declined in the post-war years, the shabby but still respected club become a haven for business people increasingly bewildered by the dangerous surrounding streets.

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Women were officially allowed membership in the club in the 1960s. The building was remodeled in the 60s and again in the 70s, when the upper bedrooms were converted into a hotel. The 1960s renovation reduced the pool's length and hopeful Olympians stopped training in the facilities. In 1977, the L.A.A.C. became home of the John R. Wooden award, one of the most prestigious awards in all of collegiate sports. The award is presented at the club every year, and has been won by college basketball stars including Phil Ford, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, and Tyler Hansbrough. The club no longer feels like the exclusive haven of cigar chomping businessmen. There are jazz nights and lecture series, and childcare is provided to harried parents who come to take one of the many Pilates or spinning classes offered.

The L.A.A.C. is still run by the Hathaway family. With the lux $10 million renovation in progress, it seems the L.A.A.C. is sure to be a downtown staple for another 100 years, appealing to a new, co-ed breed of sociable, athletic Angelenos.

Newly renovated club lounge | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club
Newly renovated club lounge | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club
Exterior of the club today | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club
Exterior of the club today | Photo: Courtesy of the L.A. Athletic Club

Further Reading: "Our First Century: The Los Angeles Athletic Club 1880-1980," by Betty Lou Young

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1 "LAACA an organization that cultivates muscle" Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1885
2 Ibid.
3 Betty Lou Young, "Our First Century: The Los Angeles Athletic Club 1880-1980", pg. 17
4 Ibid., pg 55
5 "Young athletes: a fine day of field sports yesterday" Los Angeles Times, November 25,1887
6 "Society graciously gives its approval athletic club" Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1912
7 "New LAAC gym opens" Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1912
8 "Opening day is tomorrow" Los Angeles Times, February 4, 1906
9 "Basketball and boxing" Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1906
10 Ibid.
11 "500 sketches" Los Angeles Times, October 30 1911
12 "Grand swimming plunge in new athletic club" Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1911
13 "Society graciously gives its approval athletic club" Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1912
14 Betty Lou Young, "Our First Century: The Los Angeles Athletic Club 1880-1980", pg. 92
15 "Los angeles athletic club junior track athletes loom as future Olympic" Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1927
16 "Historic club seeks secret of youth" Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2002

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