From Oil Industry Outpost To 'Feminist Mecca', A Downtown Building's Path Through L.A. History
The discovery of oil in Los Angeles is among our most tangible origin stories; liquid gold powered explosive growth and corruption in our city. It's no coincidence that one of the most damning literary portraits of 20th century industriousness—Upton Sinclair's Oil!— revolves around Southern California oil barons. It is also, perhaps, the origin story most closely resembling the American ethos: pulling from the earth to create unforeseen wealth, while instilling problems of our own making. Nothing can fill the void a country digs for itself.
Certainly, an industry needs buildings. So, when John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil came to Los Angeles to join this oil boom in the early 20th century, it sought out property. One place it ended up was near the L.A. River, just outside of Chinatown, in a three-story brick building that sits at a corner. The building still stands today; the bottom row of bricks has been painted over but the top stories still show concrete around every rectangle. Graffiti covers the barred-up windows on the ground floor, while on the top floor the windows have clouded with age. The building sits on one of the fairly quiet, sun-drenched roads of the industrial area north of downtown. Trucks move in and out of nearby buildings, and an occasional pedestrian walks by, but for the most part the building exists in the quiet stasis of inter-neighborhood areas. This isn't Chinatown or Lincoln Heights or even really Mission Junction—it's nameless, spaceless, transient.
As empty as they now appear, these riverside areas are where L.A.'s existence stems from. The L.A. State Historic Park, an emblem of the city's newfound commitment to curating livable urbanism, was once a fertile ground within a mile of the last recorded home of the Tongva peoples, the indigenous group of the Los Angeles basin. The Piggyback Yard, a massive plot of land between Mission Road and the L.A. River that houses hundreds of train cars, is owned by Union Pacific Railroad, the modern iteration of Southern Pacific Railroad. The SPR was the first rail line to extend to Los Angeles, as such this yard of train cars has roots in the city's history of commercial power. And that aforementioned brick building, once the home of Standard Oil, sits at 1727 N. Spring St., just a stone's throw away.
The Standard Oil that operated on Spring Street started as an arm of one man's national empire. That empire, however, was later broken down into a group of subsidiaries, all because of the work of Ida Tarbell, the mother of modern investigative journalism. She broke wide open the realities of the company's unethical monopoly through a series of articles she wrote for McLure Magazine in the early 20th century. In these articles, she detailed a history of Standard Oil's transgressions, which then served as the basis for a 1911 Supreme Court case that declared Standard Oil an illegal monopoly. As a result, Rockefeller had to dissolve the company into several smaller properties. The Spring Street building was constructed for a national monopoly, but the monopoly didn't last. The building did, however.
After Standard Oil left the building, the corner of Spring and Aurora carried far less cultural weight. For a moment, a woodworking company occupied the space, but then the records thin out from there. It's not until the 1970s that the building once again became the epicenter of a growing force in Los Angeles. This time around, though, that force was second wave feminism.
Later called "The Woman's Building," the old home of Standard Oil holds a mythological place in the history of West Coast feminism. In 1973, artist Judy Chicago, graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and art historian Arlene Raven founded the Feminist Studio Workshop. It was the first independent art school for women and it specifically referenced the experience of being a female artist.
The studio first called home the old Chouinard Art Institute near MaCarthur Park (which would later morph into CalArts). By 1975, the group had moved to the old Standard Oil building at Spring St. The Woman's Building—a name for both the building and the group— worked to offer artistic workshops and politically engaging programming for the next several years. In Kaucyila Brooke's 2004 essay "She Does Not See What She Does Not Know," she described the building's community as such:
The building's participants have love affairs, renounce their backgrounds, embrace their backgrounds, smoke dope, drink, practice witchcraft or Wicca, open a thrift store, have fashion shows, learn typography, learn performance art and even try painting and drawing; lovers get together, lovers break up, some who meet here are still together now; students sleep with faculty, other faculty disapprove.
Terry Wolverton, a poet and artist who spent 13 years at the Woman's Building, described the daily life of the building in her memoir, Insurgent Muse. She said they gathered together for "consciousness-raising" meetings, where women convened to share their experiences with sexism. Also, art pieces shedding light on the experience of rape, incest, and other violence against women arose from collaborations within the building's walls. The L.A. Times described one such project; in a 1977 protest performance, 10 women stood on the steps of City Hall draped in all black, an act that came in response to the "Hillside Stranglers" who were kidnapping and killing women in L.A. (the women outside City Hall represented the victims of the serial killers).
The Woman's Building, which the L.A. Times called "a feminist mecca," appeared to truly offer a world where women held the political, artistic, and social power. This was the "personal is political" era of feminism, and the Woman's Building was intent on telling personal stories of womanhood as a political act. And since it was first and foremost a world of art-making and art practice, the political remained exclusively in the personal (far less consciousness-raising around policy, for example). As such, it created a bubble for itself, navigating only the personal politics of the women who participated. Considering that the staff and students were predominantly white, this created an generally unfriendly environment for women of color. In From Site To Vision: The Woman's Building in Contemporary Culture, Otis College of Art and Design's text on the building, the Building's bubble is described as such:
"Only those women of color who shared a similar perspective on feminism as the predominantly white Woman’s Building members became heavily involved in the organization."
The book specifies how this stems from the inabilities of second wave feminism to address the needs and concerns of women who lived without racial and economic privilege. The supposed anti-oppression utopia failed to live up to its image because the larger structure—feminism itself—had failed to meet those needs.
Money eventually became as large an influence as race. After the 1970s ended, federal funding for the arts was cut drastically under President Reagan. Wolverton, in Insurgent Muse, described the effect of the 1980s on the community:
"Suddenly, if women were going back to school, they were going into MBA programs, not into experimental feminist art programs. In the seventies, there was a certain ease in choosing a marginalized stance. In the eighties, there was the feeling that you wouldn't survive.
This feminist mecca eventually fell as a result of participating in the very oppressive systems it claimed to fight. And it all happened between the same brick walls that used to house the arm of an oil magnate, someone for whom capitalist ascension was salvation.
This was perhaps foreshadowed in 1979, two years before the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman's Building closed, when poet and activist Audre Lorde spoke to a conference of feminists in New York. Facing the group of theoreticians and academics, she called out her tokenism as a black lesbian feminist at an academic conference. She went on to speak openly about intersectionality in a way few speakers had in the past, eventually directing her ire towards women who uphold the patriarchy in their own daily actions. "For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," she said. "They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."
Lorde's words may help contextualize what had happened at Spring St. The Woman's Building's support—the very building itself— was the master's house. Oil money helped build Los Angeles, and it established the three-story brick building in which the feminist community sharpened the tools it would ultimately trade for briefcases. An early female investigative reporter may have broken down the Standard Oil monopoly, but the oil money continued to chart a path into contemporary life, as the Standard Oil subsidiaries in New Jersey and New York turned into Exxon and Mobil, respectively. Just as Tarbell cut off Standard Oil's head only to have it grow several in its wake, the Woman's Building created a second wave feminist utopia only to fall prey to the very ideologies it claimed to fight.
Despite the Woman's Building's eventual demise, its influence has trickled into contemporary self-identifying feminist enclaves like the Women's Center for Creative Work in Frogtown (it considers itself a direct spiritual successor to the Woman's Building). While the Woman's Building drowned amidst accusations of privileging white women, the Woman's Center for Creative Work aims to incorporate intersectional feminism in all its programming. Intersectionality—a term coined by academic Kimberlé Crenshaw—describes the ways in which different factors of oppression affect marginalized groups in different ways, and how true activism must take into consideration the weight of multiple identities.
The WCCW might be following a little too close in the footsteps of the Woman's Building, though, while still claiming otherwise; its most expensive and comprehensive tier of membership costs $1250/year. The name of said tier? "Intersectional Goddess."
Additional reporting by Tom Carroll of Tom Explores Los Angeles.