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Woman's Athletic Club of San Francisco
San Francisco, California

Woman's Athletic Club of San Francisco
Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Club

The Woman's Athletic Club of San Francisco, now the Metropolitan Club, designed by Bliss & Faville, is a six-story building built in two phases completed in 1917 and 1923. The building is rendered in the Italian Renaissance Style, modeled after a type of early Renaissance palazzo characteristic of Florence, Italy, and after an interpretation of that type in a New York library by McKim, Mead, and White. The Woman's Athletic Club of San Francisco emerged from the conversations and experiences of a small group of socially prominent women in 1912--most of the earliest organizers of the club were listed in the Social Register. Most were members of elite social clubs and were affiliated through their husbands with the exclusive San Francisco Golf Club and the Burlingame Country Club where women participated in golf, tennis and horseback riding.

Despite the overwhelming role of women in the organization of the club (only outside consultants, lawyers and its architects were men) the members were almost always referred to in the press and in other records by their husband's names, i.e., Elizabeth Pillsbury was Mrs. Horace D. Pillsbury. Mrs. Pillsbury became the first president of the Women's Athletic Club. The core of the membership of the club was expected to come from the Social Register, but efforts were made to reach artistically trained women and working-class women. The aim of the club, as stated in 1914 in a letter sent to prospective members, was "educational first and recreation and pleasure afterwards." Elizabeth Pillsbury reached out to working women and girls by creating another athletic club, the Recreation Club for Girls Who Work, located at 507 Harrison Street, which was located in the heart of the industrial section of the city.

[Photo] Woman's Athletic Club of San Francisco
Photo from National Register collection

The club was incorporated October 25, 1915. Once the building opened in 1917, with 1,000 members, the club was open for business from 8:00am to 10:00pm daily. For members, members' husbands and the public at large, the ability of women to succeed in creating and running as large and complex an operation as the Woman's Athletic Club was an ongoing issue. The local press presented both points of view, with the women society writers, Choll Francisco for the San Francisco Examiner and Grace Armistead Doyle for the San Francisco Chronicle, frankly admiring the achievements of the women who created the club. The opposing view came from unsigned news articles in both papers insinuating that women were not up to the task.

Socially, physical education for women in America began as early as the 1820s in girls' schools, but it wasn't until the mid-19th century that widespread concerns began that the health of American women was in decline, perhaps because of the effects of urbanization and industrialization. In the 1860s and 1870s, several women's colleges including Mills College in Oakland were established incorporating programs for physical training in their curriculums, including calisthenics, dancing and gymnastics. The first gymnasium for women outside of women's colleges was Miss Allen's Gymnasium for Ladies, established in Boston in 1879. In the 1890s, it became fashionable for wealthy women to engage in certain sports--golf, tennis, yachting and horseback riding. It was not until 1900 that public attitudes about athletics for women began to change, but there were still voices of opposition present. In 1905, The Women Citizen reported that former President Grover Cleveland "gravely pointed out the menace of the women's clubs" but by 1925, the social venue had changed and such statements by high politicians were rare or non-existent. While California women obtained the right to vote in 1911 in State elections, it wasn't until 1919 that women could vote in national elections.

Woman's Athletic Club of San Francisco
Photo from National Register collection

During the 1920s the Woman's Athletic Club of San Francisco flourished, with active basketball, swimming and tennis teams. Plans were drawn up for an expanded building, which the San Francisco Examiner called "the largest club of its kind in America." Construction on the club began in September 1922 and was completed in December 1923. Like other mainstream institutions of the period, the club's members appear to have been all white during the early years. It may be that non-white women were granted at least temporary admittance during the 1940s, perhaps when women in the armed services were invited during World War II or during the United Nations Conference when women delegates, delegates' wives and women journalists were given temporary membership cards. In addition to athletics, the club sponsored lectures and held dinners for major holidays and special events, usually with family members invited. After the original 50-year incorporation of the Woman's Athletic Club expired in 1965, the club was reincorporated, this time to have "perpetual existence." Since 1966, the club has continued as the Metropolitan Club. San Francisco's women's clubs from the 1860s to the 1920s were products of the Women's Club Movement. The founding of the clubs during this period reflected the efforts of women to participate in public life, to end their social isolation, to influence American society on a wide range of issues, to gain equal rights and to improve themselves--intellectually, physically and artistically. The Woman's Athletic Club of San Francisco was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on September 10, 2004.

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