Mary Louise Schmidt was one of the first women in Los Angeles to find success within the business of architecture when she arrived in the city in 1911 from Mexico by way of Denver and St. Louis. Though she would never design anything herself, Schmidt’s many contributions to the city’s experimental architecture scene in its formative period as a businesswoman and organizer—particularly through the creation of the landmark 1936 California House and Garden Exhibition and later the Building Center, a design resource hub, in 1957—positions her in a unique historic role all her own that has since been superseded by those of her male counterparts, including journalist and historic preservation advocate Charles F. Lummis and John Entenza, editor of the journal Arts & Architecture, whose respective careers have been extolled throughout the decades.
Through a fellowship from the local architecture preservation nonprofit Friends of Residential Treasures: Los Angeles (FORT: LA), historic preservationist Jenna Snow and historian Dr. Andrea Thabet have banded together to return Schmidt’s legacy to the city’s complex history.
After completing courses in architectural drawing at Polytechnic High School in L.A., Schmidt turned her first job in the city in 1912—an “office girl” for the architecture firm of Arthur Kelly—into a launching pad for her own entrepreneurial pursuits. “Her time at Kelly’s firm was an education for Louise about the ins and outs of [architecture],” Snow and Thabet write in their 25-page research report. “Louise began building valuable relationships with local architects that would become crucial to her success in the ensuing decades.” With vital connections secured, Schmidt opened the hugely successful Architects Building Material Exhibit in Downtown Los Angeles in 1914 as a more interactive showroom alternative to the building material catalogs that were still in wide circulation at the time.
Aerial view of the California House and Garden Exhibition, with Wilshire Boulevard at right. Photo courtesy Mary Louise Schmidt Archives
Fast forward two decades, and Schmidt would become one of the few businesswomen to seize upon the National Housing Act of 1934, a New Deal-era policy designed to address the nation’s housing shortage, as both a business opportunity and a creative venture. With the help of her sister Florence, Schmidt transformed a large parcel of land at 5900 Wilshire Boulevard (across from what is currently the LACMA campus) into the 1936 California House and Garden Exhibition, a campus of six model homes designed by some of the city’s then-most renowned architects—including Richard Neutra, Paul Revere Williams, and Schmidt’s former employer Arthur Kelly—that received more than 50,000 visitors within its first two weeks. Unlike John Entenza’s Case Study House program that would be launched in the following decade, the exhibition featured houses in both modern and traditional styles. “Louise was a risk-taker and a tastemaker,” Snow told RECORD. “But she also knew how to draw from popular tastes.”
Organized primarily as a lucrative outdoor showroom, the California House and Garden Exhibition was also conceived of as a catalyst for social progress. “The exhibition was put on by women for women,” Snow and Thabet write. “Louise and Florence imagined primarily a female audience and created promotional literature and events aimed at drawing in women.”
Following the exhibition’s closure in 1938 amid the on-going Depression, all six houses were moved off-site and now reside in all corners of the city. A “trail” map designed by Snow and Thabet and made possible by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs allows visitors to drive between the disparate homes, many of which are well-preserved and easily visible from the street. “These homes still stand not only as reminders of the city’s eclectic architectural history,” says Snow, “but the indispensable female entrepreneurship that made it possible.”
An event featuring Snow and Thabet dicussing the legacy of Schmidt with Frances Anderton, host of KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture, will be held at Soho.Home.Studio on March 21.