The Santa Monica Bay Woman's Club building on 4th, just south of Wilshire, is
a bit like Margaret Dumont. She played the imperious society matron who suffered
endless insults at the hands of the Marx Brothers.
Classy Old Gal
Built in 1914, the imposing two story Classical Revival building was once a
focus of Santa Monica’s high-end cultural and civic set. Like Dumont,
this classy old gal has endured her number of indignities over the years.
It has been made-over, re-designed, re-configured, re-painted and
remodeled. It has survived -- and served its part -- in two World
Wars. Its wires are glitchy, its plumbing leaky. It has caught fire,
sat empty, been reopened and sat empty again.
Thankfully, Darlene Bahr, an energetic retiree and current president of the
Club, is not only leading a revival of the organization itself, but also spearheading
a massive rehabilitation of its stately headquarters.
She recently took me on a tour of the grand dame of 4th Street.
Three oak-framed glass entrance doors set into a marble façade open
into a large foyer. Here light pours through three magnificent stained-glass
transom windows. These are among the few original features which remain unmolested.
Inside, most of the hand detailed surfaces are buried under countless coats
of white paint. Doors to cloak rooms are shut with padlocks. A white-washed
board covers up the box office window.
”This will all be fixed,” says Ms. Bahr, who clearly loves this
building and its proud history.
Past the foyer the interior opens to a giant, cathedral-like ballroom dominated
by an arch-framed stage. There are acres of polished, honey-colored original
wood flooring throughout the place.
Second story balconies surround the ballroom. Ms. Bahr points out to where,
just beneath the balcony railing, there was once mezzanine-level
“Back some time in the '50s it was walled up,” explains
Ms. Bahr. Like so many of the alterations to the building, nobody
seems to remember the reasoning for it.
There are doorways that are oddly sealed off. Many of the original glass doorknobs
have been replaced with mismatching, Home Depot specials. Original cast iron
pendant lamps share space with cheap knock-offs.
But perhaps the greatest outrage of all was committed in the design-blighted
’70s when someone decided to cover the sculpted ceiling and huge skylight
with the kinds of white perforated acoustic tiles found in DMV offices.
It is clear, however, that its flaws are only skin deep. When I
followed Ms. Bahr up the nearly 100-year-old steps, they didn’t
creak. The banisters are worn smooth by countless hands but don’t
wobble under one’s grip. The place has good bones.
The building currently sees lots of use. The Club rents it out to a dance studio,
for piano recitals, bar mitzvahs, lectures, weddings, reunions. Ralph Nader,
the perennial presidential candidate, spoke here recently. The ladies play canasta
each Monday. On Fridays tango dancers take to the floor.
The Club uses these funds to keep the building operational and build its restoration
fund. Ms. Bahr and her fellow Club members are armed with determination, the
building’s original blueprints, and an official landmark designation from
Perhaps, unlike Margaret Dumont, the old building will have the