It was Christmastime in 1929. In the cozy auditorium of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union Home in Eagle Rock, a group of lady teetotalers was celebrating the 100th birthday of resident Abbie Fuller. Swathed in lace, Fuller listened teary-eyed as she was lauded by her fellow WCTU sisters. Despite her great age, Fuller was still a stubborn spitfire who read the newspaper every morning and insisted on walking up and down the stairs of the four-story Mediterranean Revival home after every meal for exercise.
In between that party and one at her granddaughter's, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times visited the centenarian in her private room at the home, where around 100 WCTU members were enjoying their twilight years. "Flush with excitement," the Times reported, "Grandma, as everyone near and dear to her calls her affectionately, sat in her flower-bedecked room… after yesterday's flood of felicitations and groped about somewhat bewildered for an answer to the riddle of longevity."
After pondering the question, Fuller finally supplied her recipe for a long life. "I've always tried my best to mind my own business," she said. "You see, I've sort of felt that to take care of myself and mine offered plenty of work, and so why should I go and get myself all up in a stew prodding into other people's affairs."
This was an ironic statement coming from a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which from its founding in Cleveland in 1874, worked tirelessly to control what people drank and to expand who was allowed to vote.
Founded by middle-and-upper-class women to push for abstinence and prohibition laws, the WCTU became a major force for societal change in post-Civil War America. Under the leadership of its second president, Frances Willard, chapters sprang up all over the country. According to Ruth Bordin, author of "Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900," by 1892 the national organization "of marching mothers" boasted 150,000 dues — paying members.
By 1883, a Los Angeles Chapter had formed. That same year, Willard herself came to speak in the city. According to Paul R. Spitzzeri, Museum Director at Homestead Museum in the City of Industry, in 1889 the L.A. chapter opened their new Romanesque headquarters on the corner of Fort (now Broadway) and Temple Streets.
Nicknamed the "Temperance Temple," the building would remain the L.A. WCTU home for over fifty years (it was torn down to make way for the L.A. Freeway in the 1950s). The building was a hub of philanthropic and feminist activity in Los Angeles. The WCTU grew in popularity with the turn of the century, as women increasingly sought ways to expand their rights and better society. As Bordin explains:
The WCTU was a "safe" women's movement. But its members nonetheless were never completely sure about the nature of their public role. They frequently avowed their complete disinterest in activism for anything but altruistic purposes, and at the same time they pointed with pride to the widening spheres of women.
Under Willard, the WCTU also advocated for women's suffrage. According to NPR's Monee Fields-White, Willard believed that giving women the right to vote was the only way liquor laws could be changed.
However, Willard's progressive views did not extend to racial equality. According to Fields-White, although some Black women were accepted into local WCTU chapters, Willard used racist tropes and imagery to promote her views. Fields-White writes:
She was even willing to court white Southern women, at the expense of Blacks, even though her parents had been abolitionists. "'Better whiskey and more of it' is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs," Willard said in an 1890 interview with the New York Voice. "The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities.'"
Sadly, this viewpoint fit perfectly with the outlook of many Anglo pioneers and boosters of Southern California who were attempting to brand Los Angeles as an idyllic, overwhelmingly white haven.
The decades of lobbying, marching, proselytizing and fundraising eventually paid off. In 1919, women [though suffrage was technically "universal" women of color were often prevented from voting] won the right to vote, and national prohibition was ratified. Riding high in 1920, 5,000 members of the WCTU of Southern California met for their annual convention in Long Beach. According to records held in the archives of the Homestead Museum, those attending the convention took this oath:
I hereby solemnly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented, and malt liquors, including wine, beer and cider, and to employ all proper means to secure the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.
The WCTU was taking its victory lap. In 1924, Elizabeth Putnam Gordon published "Women Torch- Bearers: The Story of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union" to celebrate the organization's "home-loving, heroic and progressive patriots." She wrote:
For fifty years a multitude of American white-ribbon women [the white ribbon was a symbol of the WCTU] have proclaimed the gospel of total abstinence, purity, peace and prohibition and are now sending the ends of the earth glad tidings of national victory over the thraldom of the liquor traffic.
Slide left and right to see how the home has changed over the decades:
Their main goals achieved, the WCTU began to branch into other forms of social betterment. Many pioneering members of the WCTU were now elderly, and care homes had been built for them throughout the country. In Los Angeles, the small home run by the WTCU in Highland Park had been condemned by the L.A. Fire Department. Local organizers raised around $500,000 to build not only a new retirement home for elderly members in Eagle Rock, but homes for both troubled girls and indigent men.
On Mother's Day 1927, the first earth was turned for the new Southern California Home of the Aged, at 2245 Norwalk Ave. Designed by A. Godfrey Bailey, the elegant building featured 100 individual rooms, an auditorium, cafeteria and lovely grounds. Members of the Eagle Rock community welcomed the home. "The friends in Eagle Rock have been most sympathetic," one member told a local journalist. "Everyone approached seems to feel 'it might be my mother; it is somebody's mother.'"
Quickly renamed the WCTU Home for Women, it was soon filled with elderly members of the WCTU and their contemporaries. There were seventy non-paying residents who could not have afforded care otherwise, while most others paid $60 a month. All were encouraged to utilize the library, knit in the sewing room, attend afternoon teas, church and WCTU meetings. In 1933, the Los Angeles Times reported on the scene:
Each has her own room, her little private domain, where she may display her treasures — perchance a precious old colonial desk, a candle table, a sewing box, faded pictures of babies of long ago, or grand-children and great-grandchildren of today… A few grand darlings own their own radios, divans with fancy cushions, tea sets, grand coverlets for their beds. These rooms spell home, and their names on their doors proclaim the owners. Some are less fortunate — so very few little possessions. No one remembers to send flowers, and even the advertisers send no mail.
"Naturally each one of them is strong for temperance," the paper noted.
In the 1940s and 1960s, additions were added to the main building and six bungalows eventually dotted the pleasant property. Dues were collected by the home's WCTU chapter — a "penny and a prayer a day." According to the Los Angeles Times, many residents followed the WCTU tradition of observing a "trysting hour," when they prayed for the demise of the liquor industry.
As the years passed, and the membership and prominence of the WCTU waned, more and more residents of the Eagle Rock home were non-members who agreed to not drink or smoke. "The people that live here are happy and well pleased," resident Dorothy Taylor told the Los Angeles Times in 1980.
They know there's no smoking and drinking and there's no men around swearing. They know they're free to come and go — they just feel free. There's nothing strict here. We just live our own lives.Dorothy Taylor, WCTU resident (1980)
By 1990, the facility in Eagle Rock was one of the last two WCTU care homes in the country. Many of the residents had never even heard of the WCTU. "I knew nothing about the WCTU until I came here," 89-year-old Harriet Wachowski told the Los Angeles Times with a twinkle in her eye. "I make fun of it a lot now. Why don't we get some guys in here and liven it up a little bit? I'd like to see a little dancing. Something lively!"
The facility was outdated, with dorm-style bathrooms and subpar amenities, which also made it hard to attract new residents. In 1991, the WCTU announced that the home, long operating at a loss, was closing. The remaining 50 odd residents were given only two months to find new homes. "Everyone was sad. We've been a happy family here. It's hard to make new acquaintances," 85-year-old Kathryn Erlandsen told the Times in 1992.
Today, the building is designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 562. It is home to GLAD, the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness, and includes the Deaf Community Center and the Deaf Affordable Housing Corporation, offering affordable housing to deaf seniors over the age of 55. It continues to be a building where those sometimes forgotten can find a home.
Special thanks to the Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society.