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.