Seventy years ago, when most architects thought the only contribution a woman could make to Los Angeles' emerging skyline was making them another cup of coffee, Mary Louise Schmidt knew she would have to go to great heights to be taken seriously in the profession she so admired.
So she went nearly as high as the law then allowed--12 stories, the height of the Architects Building she built on the southeast corner of 5th and Figueroa streets. Ninety percent of the space was leased before the building was finished.
Schmidt was once Los Angeles' most prominent and arguably most powerful woman in a male-dominated society. She created the world's first building products exhibit, started L.A.'s first house and garden show, designed and financed office buildings and built a renowned business--Architects & Engineers Service--that survived until her death in 1974.
In 1912, Schmidt, a 22-year-old dropout from Smith College in Massachusetts, arrived in Los Angeles and began work as a secretary and assistant to architect Arthur Kelly. In her spare time, with the help of some young men in the firm's drafting room, she began drawing plans to build a small house in Alhambra for her parents. Her first attempt wasn't quite big enough; her brother and his friend had to live in a tent on the front lawn.
While working for the Kelly firm, Schmidt organized and hosted the American Institute of Architects' annual exhibits, receiving a commission for each architect she persuaded to contribute. When business in Kelly's office slackened, she devised bookkeeping systems and wrote building specifications for other architects.
Her charm and intelligence--and a loan from her father's life insurance policy--helped open her first door in 1914.
Operating on the hunch that architects wanted an easier way to find and choose building materials--other than using the Sweet's Catalog, a multi-volume publication commonly found in architects' offices--Schmidt became the link between architects and the building materials industry.
She opened the world's first Building Material Exhibit in the Metropolitan Building at 5th and Broadway. Manufacturers paid high rent for space (enough for Schmidt to gross the then-considerable sum of $600 a week), while architects paid nothing.
Schmidt believed that architects were gifted and important men who lived by their creative egos. She treated them like members of a select club and tried to make their jobs infinitely easier. (She probably disappointed a few when she married Los Angeles attorney Byron Dick Seaver in 1921.)
But Schmidt needed a permanent home for her exhibits. In 1927, pregnant and ankle-deep in mud from recent storms, Schmidt supervised construction of the first building she helped design and finance at 5th and Figueroa. When the Architects Building reached its full height of 12 stories (13 stories was the limit), Schmidt had 90% of it leased to architects, with two floors saved for exhibits.
In the 1930s, new ideas about the American house were evolving, and technology was being courted. To produce with less material and fewer hands was the goal. With this in mind, Schmidt in 1936 successfully promoted her new idea: the California House and Garden Exhibit on Wilshire Boulevard near Crescent Heights.
Manufacturers provided free material and $10 a month for upkeep. Five architectural firms (Richard Neutra, Paul Williams, John Buyers, Arthur Kelly and Risley & Gould), landscape architects and interior designers donated their plans and built six houses, each with different architectural styles, from California and English cottages to Moderne.
Schmidt's sister, Florence Schmidt, helped promote the exhibit in her Los Angeles Times column "Construction Primer," and movie celebrities helped host the openings.
Nevertheless, two years later, the California House and Garden Show, visited by 70,000 Angelenos its first year, succumbed to the Depression. The houses were raffled off, and the winners moved them off the leased property.
Schmidt moved into the Pacific Mutual Building and opened a new business, Architect & Engineers Service. She hired only female college graduates, who typed specifications, filed and researched new products. She paid them minimum wage with a few fringe benefits: lunch at Chasen's and theater tickets.
Intelligence, personality and propriety were important to Schmidt. She had strict rules on how her "girls" should act in an architect's office: work hard, dress properly in immaculately tailored suits, and never draw undo attention or mix business with pleasure.
What began as a small business to occupy her time during the final years of the Depression grew into five additional offices in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Phoenix.
Schmidt's final business venture came in 1957, when the 67-year-old grandmother opened the Building Center at 3rd and Fairfax. Oilman Earl Gilmore, who owned the property, leased it to Schmidt so she could build her dream. The one-story building in a garden setting was the meeting place for manufacturers and architects, decorators and landscape architects for almost two decades.