A Storied Los Angeles Club for African American Women Looks to the Future
It doesn’t take much to envision a certain wide stretch of Los Angeles’ West Adams Boulevard in its early 20th century glory—when traffic floated by at a genteel pace and carefully spaced rows of stately homes peeked out from sumptuous gardens. Taken together, it embodied the sweet dream of the West.
From its easterly end in downtown Los Angeles to its western reaches just beyond what is today Crenshaw Boulevard, the historic West Adams District was home to early film stars like Theda Bara and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, as well as key Los Angeles power brokers such as oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny and his wife Carrie Estelle Doheny.
Some years later this enclave would become home to many African American celebrities of the day; property owners included actresses Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers, as well as the Nicholas Brothers, the acclaimed tap-dancing duo. This was about the time that the members of the Wilfandel Club—51 resourceful and upwardly mobile African American women who were challenging assumptions about black Los Angeles—would take their run of a stately house at 3425 West Adams. The white, terracotta tile-roofed Mediterranean Revival residence, built in 1912, stands at the northeast corner of Adams and 5th Avenue, set back from the boulevard with a bright apron of green lawn leading to its broad porch.
Founded in 1945 by Della Williams and Fannie Williams (the two were not related), the Wilfandel Club House offered a singular experience: an elegant gathering place for black Angelenos to meet or celebrate in style. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently awarded the club a $75,000 grant through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF) to assist the women of the Wilfandel with essential infrastructure upkeep. Preserving this property is a way to honor all that’s come before—that struggle to acquire and protect one’s place in an ever-evolving Los Angeles.
I visit the Wilfandel Club on a late-summer morning, but a crisp sea breeze suggests that here in Southern California, fall is near. Carole Kaiser, the club’s current house chair, swings open the heavy front door. In the foyer, a young woman in leggings and a dark hoodie, hair smoothed back in a ponytail, stands in a pool of sunlight with the house’s events manager, Robert Brooks. She’s training her smartphone, in video mode, on her pathway—first the foyer, then the living room, dining room, and kitchen. “For my fiancé,” she announces, breaking into her on-mic room-to-room narration. She’s scouting locations for her wedding, and the Wilfandel is high on her list.
The club rents its space for bridal and baby showers, weddings, graduation parties, and often, as the neighborhood demographics continue to cycle forward, quinceañeras. I imagine women and girls swanning around in their flowing dresses, ascending the staircase, pausing for pictures.
For seven decades now, this house has served as a repository of memory, a place to stage one’s milestone moments that become, along with pressed flowers, the stuff of scrapbook memories. Generations of African American Angelenos have grown up here, attending or throwing sweet sixteens and tea parties. It sits at the heart of a very particular African American experience in L.A.
“My kids—now grown—think of it as their house,” says Kaiser. “And now my grandkids think I live here, I’m up here so often checking up on things.”
These are the sorts of sunlit rooms where, if you stand quietly and close your eyes, you can hear the clatter of china and the volley of laughter from long ago; it’s part of the house’s patina. History circles it, in commendations and photos of its founders. Here are Della and Fannie, posed behind the stretch of lace-draped dining table.
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Kaiser and I wind upstairs, past a seating area with a view of the verdant backyard. Then we take a peek into the Groom’s Room, where men gather to suit up for wedding ceremonies. After sweeping past a conference room, Kaiser ushers me into the Bride’s Room—rose pink, spacious, and absorbing plenty of L.A.’s famous powdery light. From a vanity table in an adjacent dressing room, she lifts a framed black-and-white photo: “This is my wedding.” Immediately recognizable is the layout of the backyard where the dazzling bridal party stands—and of course, Kaiser’s sunny smile.
In addition to serving as a staging space for life events, the Wilfandel still functions as a clubhouse. Now back up to 41 active members after shrinking to 33, the club meets, as the bylaws stipulate, nine months out of 12. And along with the showers, weddings, and repasts the women book, they are busy fundraising for charities and scholarships. The Wilfandel has donated to the NAACP and the American Cancer Society, among other organizations. It also offers the space to nonprofits, including the neighborhood council, for a reduced or waived fee.
While the 1912 structure boasts beautiful bones, time has worn away some of the grandeur. “Sometimes you’re in a meeting and the lights flicker,” Kaiser explains. Then there’s the matter of updating the plumbing and shoring up the cracked foundation. “We’d like to get the safety things down first. Cosmetics will come, but we need to do first things first. Like us,” she adds with a musical chuckle, “the house has grown some wrinkles.”
Kaiser remembers coming to the Wilfandel for years, beginning when she was a teenager. “My very first time, it was a formal tea. We wore hats. Later it was fashion shows and parties and semi-formals. I am so proud to say that I was able to be part of all of that.” But amid the glamour, she reflects, “those were scary times. Not all places were safe for black people to go.” That was the trouble with trying to live the Los Angeles dream.
“These clubs filled a huge need for connection and interaction across the city.”Anne Bradford Luke
Since taking over as club president in 2016, Liza Scruggs had been looking for ways to both address the challenges of the house’s upkeep and consider creative ways of connecting with the changing surrounding community. She’d first gotten wind of the AACHAF grant through Alison Rose Jefferson, a heritage conservation consultant and scholar who has long studied the African American experience in Southern California. “[When] I heard about the grant, I got on it,” Scruggs says.
While the grant has enabled the club to make needed repairs, it also has inspired more comprehensive thinking about what the Wilfandel will be (and mean) for the future—carrying Della and Fannie’s dream into the 21st century.
One of the remarkable things about the Wilfandel legacy, says Scruggs, is the founding members’ prescience in purchasing the house. “These ladies were real visionaries to get this property.” So many longtime residents in present-day L.A. have begun losing their footing in neighborhoods despite their deep roots; it’s all part of the many waves of gentrification that pass through and remake neighborhoods just like this.
Acquiring this formal space was a goal both practical and symbolic for the women of the Wilfandel Club. “Nobody knew in 1945 where we were going with civil rights and with it access to certain kinds of environments. You never knew [when] you’d walk in if people would be nice or rude,” says Jefferson.
For a time the members ferried themselves downtown to Clifton’s on Broadway, where they would often meet in a private room, but they’d already begun to put feelers out to find a place that they could, in the many layers of the word, call home. “The black elite was now at a place where they wanted some nice, fancy places to go. They were tired of [always] having things in churches, and the nightclub scene wasn’t [necessarily] as posh,” says Jefferson. “So it was also a bit of status that they were trying to articulate, as well.”
Early last century, housing covenants placed on some tracts of land by developers or landowners made it difficult for particular ethnic groups to purchase property. These agreements carefully tended the composition of a neighborhood, and restrictive policies were written into the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ Code of Ethics until the 1950s. The code at the time read: “A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to the property values in that neighborhood.”
Still, change pushed back, a corrective coming in swift waves of African American western migration.
In West Adams, as both Kaiser and Scruggs remembered, black professionals, entertainers, and activists were buying up property: John and Vada Somerville, founders of the famous Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue; Norman Houston, president of the black-owned Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company; singer and actress Ethel Waters. Part of the area was eventually dubbed “Sugar Hill” by locals, as a nod to Harlem’s upscale neighborhood.
As Della and Fannie hunted for a clubhouse, Sugar Hill and its tony environs continued to be the target of a campaign by racially intolerant neighbors, who were dead set on invoking the existing policies. In 1945, eight white Sugar Hill residents sued to evict their black neighbors from their own residences, arguing that if restrictive covenants were not enforced, lower property values and racial clashes would follow.
The black residents fought back—and won—with the help of African American attorney and NAACP activist Loren Miller, who represented them in what would become a landmark civil rights lawsuit.
With this watershed effort as the backdrop, the charter members of the club secured their spot in L.A. history. The Wilfandel Club was officially incorporated on June 5, 1947. As lore has it, the attorney handling the details of the incorporation suggested combining parts of Della’s and Fannie’s first and last names—and thus the organization would formally become Wil-Fan-Del.
“We've got that emotional connection with so many black Angelenos ... coming to the Wilfandel is like coming home.”Gayle Beavers
Built in 1912 for developer Percy Clark, the house was purchased by the Wilfandel women in 1948 for $28,000. They made a down payment of $10,860, and the mortgage was paid by the club’s 10th anniversary. After almost a year of renovations, the first meeting was held November 21, 1948.
From the start, says Jefferson, “the organization was a mix of women who worked and women married to men who were bringing home the bacon. Fannie Williams had a hair salon. Bessie Burke, also a Wilfandel member, was the first African American schoolteacher and principal in Los Angeles.” Della Williams—whose husband was the prominent, and barrier-breaking, black architect Paul Revere Williams—brought her own flair, expertise, and drive. “She was president for 15 years,” Jefferson adds. “That was a job. She was involved in all kinds of philanthropic work.”
Women’s organizations and the support they could provide played a specific role in black social structure, involving members in the issues of the day. “These organizations have long been an important part of our lives,” says former Wilfandel president Anne Bradford Luke. “And due to these organizations we [still] lead busy lives.” There was always a vivid mix of activities: Bridge games and fashion shows and authors and artists coming to talk about their work, Luke recalls. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Rockefeller both attended events at the house. “From the ’30s to the ’60s these organizations focused on social and civic concerns—the world around us,” she notes. “These clubs filled a huge need for connection and interaction across the city, and kept us abreast of what was going on locally and in the world.”
With time, as business and leisure options opened up for African Americans, the idea of social clubs as a focal point shifted. Still, the Wilfandel has a cachet.
Like so much of Los Angeles, West Adams is part of L.A.’s complex gentrification wave. The neighborhood is being “re-discovered” as a hidden gem rich with L.A. history and gorgeous housing stock: California Craftsman and Queen Anne, Gothic Revival and what preservationists say is the last remaining Greene & Greene-designed house within city limits. In that mix, there is a dreamy, quintessentially Los Angeles quality about the neighborhood.
The Wilfandel Club wants to be a player in this new Los Angeles. Part of its strategy, as Liza Scruggs sees it, entails creating partnerships and working on efforts to strengthen the club’s bonds with the community. “I am interested in collaborating with other groups that share like-minded goals: philanthropic work and civic betterment.”
After the work with the plumbing, electrical system, and foundation is completed, Scruggs plans to research and apply for more grants so the club can continue updating both the house and the overall agenda. “Most important,” Scruggs says, “we really want to look at ways to be of service to others.”
Della Williams’ granddaughter, club historian Gayle Harvey Beavers, agrees heartily with the outside-the-box thinking; she knows that’s at the root of how the Wilfandel Club came to be.
Della would sometimes travel with her husband to visit his offices in places like Paris and Bogotá, and they would take in not just the scenery but the lifestyle. “Because of the work he was doing, they saw wonderful, extraordinary things,” Beavers says. “It was her idea to bring those concepts home and share them with her community. She thought we as black people need to have a place to be and do our thing. We need to have our own mecca and it needs to be lovely and it needs to be extraordinary.”
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Last year, after sending her second son off to college, Beavers had time to reflect on the Wilfandel and its legacy: “I realized that we’ve not recorded our history. People collected news articles [and] pictures, but there was no concerted effort because I think everybody was just busy living it.”
Erasure happens overnight; it occurs in many subtle ways. The covenants that threatened to push blacks out were followed by the construction of Interstate 10, which sliced through and collapsed much of West Adams. Now, Beavers says, is a pivotal time to get focused. The Los Angeles her grandparents and parents knew and helped to shape is rapidly disappearing, and with it are those stories of the hard-won victories and institutions. “Let’s do some oral histories [of the Wilfandel] and let’s start codifying who we are.”
Beavers is working on an application to have the house added to the National Register of Historic Places. Like Scruggs, she’s putting efforts into recruiting new members. “I don’t care if you’re 95 or 35, if you can bring it, then I want you,” she says.
She hopes to ride the momentum of renewal and recommitment. “The house is always the jewel in the crown and being able to offer space for black people is the major thrust, but I think we got so focused on the rentals that our other [interactive] piece slipped to the side. I want to get back to opening our doors to political, cultural, and social events, and hopefully derive some tangibles that everybody can take away.” And above all, she wants to ensure that her grandmother’s dream doesn’t fade. “We’ve got that emotional connection with so many black Angelenos. It’s part of the fabric. Coming to the Wilfandel is like coming home.”
Ultimately, says Beavers, the women’s efforts to rejuvenate both the house and the club’s role in the community are an expression of gratitude. They’re a nod to the past and an embrace of the future. “I would like to create a living mural of what a major, vibrant player the Wilfandel was. This is the fabulous foundation we’re standing on today, so moving forward we can’t accept anything less. In fact, we need to expand on what we have, and the possibilities are unlimited,” she says. “The biggest challenge is to stay relevant and to recognize that we can’t just replicate what we did in the past.”
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Lynell George is a Los Angeles-based journalist and essayist. A former staff writer for LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, she is also the author of two books, No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels and After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame.