In 1936, little-known housing advocate and shrewd businesswoman Mary Louise Schmidt organized what might be the most significant architecture show of the 20th century — right here in Los Angeles. Long before the celebrated Case Study House program of the postwar years, Schmidt utilized her extensive knowledge of the architectural industry and new federal housing policy to launch the California House and Garden Exhibition, an innovative model home exhibition of epic proportions.
The California House and Garden Exhibition’s sensational “Grand Opening” on a Friday night in mid-April drew an estimated 10,000 Angelenos to the newly fashionable ‘Miracle Mile’ district of Wilshire Boulevard, directly across the street from what would become, nearly 30 years in the future, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Advertisements for the fete described what delights visitors might encounter – a “moonlit rose garden, lily pond, orchid exhibit, and rare birds.” The six model homes on display showcased varying architectural styles, complete with “beautiful landscaping and furnishings” built around a central courtyard. Each home was designed by a different, noted Los Angeles architect including Richard Neutra, Paul Revere Williams, Winchton Risley, Edla Muir with John Byers, and Arthur Kelley with Joe Estep. Newspapers touted the “unusual landscaping,” “modern furnishings,” and “new home equipment” on display at each model home. Opening ceremonies featured a ribbon cutting ceremony with film actress Anita Louise presiding. Several Hollywood ingenues (including Ida Lupino, Mae Clarke, Betty Grable, and Gail Patrick) were on hand to show off each house, while federal, state, county, and city officials gave speeches of welcome. The entire affair was broadcast on local radio station KMTR. Around 50,000 people visited the Exhibition in the first two weeks, causing the Los Angeles Times to declare “Already thousands are saying ‘don’t miss the California House & Garden Exhibition.’”
The California House and Garden Exhibition was the brainchild of Mary Louise Schmidt, assisted by her younger sister, Florence Schmidt. Louise conceived of the Exhibition as a way to “stimulate home building” in the wake of the Great Depression and to educate consumers about modern building materials. Even more significantly, the Exhibition was a vehicle for promoting the employment of trained and certified architects in Los Angeles in residential construction, a shift from the common practice of hiring builders to design a home. What’s striking is that the exhibition was put on by women for women – Louise and Florence targeted a female audience by creating weekly events aimed at drawing in women with homemaker demonstrations, afternoon teas, and free childcare.
The Los Angeles Times’ own Alma Whitaker covered much of the exhibition for the newspaper, keeping readers informed of its progress and triumph. Whitaker’s description of the idea for the exhibit, and of the women themselves, remains true to the gendered language typical of the era for describing women’s work lives and ambition:
“Louise and Florence Schmidt have performed a miracle. Scores of bigwigs shook their heads and said it couldn’t be done. But there it stands on Wilshire Boulevard, with the blessing of the Chamber of Commerce and the Federal Housing Commission, the builders, architects, interior decorators and landscape gardeners. They are two quiet, unassuming young women—positively shy. And Louise has four youngsters to provide for, too. But oh, they have vision! Hence…they sold the idea of this vast co-operation for the California House and Garden Exhibit to these hard-headed business men.” Whitaker called the Exhibition “a woman project,” and marveled at how “just two meek looking young women who did not know such a word as ‘failure’” are now “making new business for hundreds of people, from laborers to capitalists.””
Whitaker’s descriptions of Mary Louise Schmidt belie the shrewd business sense of a career-oriented woman whose forgotten business acumen and talent for bringing together architects, builders, clients, and FHA officials helped forge the backbone of residential housing construction during the turmoil of the Great Depression. As one scholar argues, Schmidt was a housing advocate who “did as much as any architect to shape the look of Los Angeles’ built environment.”
The 1936 Exhibition was the highlight of her career at a pivotal moment when both Louise and the home building industry were undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts. Its success opened the way for Louise to remain influential for decades after the California House and Garden Exhibition closed in 1938. No other woman had a greater impact on the residential built environment of Los Angeles than Mary Louise Schmidt.
The story of the California House and Garden Exhibition is a gendered story about a woman on the margins of the architectural profession who trailblazed her own career path and in the process reshaped the residential construction industry in Los Angeles between the 1920s and 1970s. Yet Louise’s name and story have been forgotten. So too has the California House and Garden Exhibition, despite its popularity at the time. Mary Louise Schmidt’s story makes visible the history of female entrepreneurship and innovation in a male-dominated industry and highlights the vast influence of a woman ahead of her time.
*This story is part of a research collaboration with Jenna Snow. See below for links to the FORT:LA sponsored Trail Map, “A Women’s Project: Mary Louise Schmidt and the 1936 California House and Garden Exhibition.”
 “Display Ad,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1936, p. 14; “Modern Homes Exhibit Will Open Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1936, p. 10.
 “California House and Garden Exhibition Now Open,” Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1936.
 “House Show Opens Today,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1936.
 “Modern Homes Exhibit Will Open Tomorrow.”
 “California House and Garden Exhibition Now Open;” “Various Types of Dwellings Picturesquely Shown at House and Garden Exhibit,” Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1936, p. 3.
 Alma Whitaker, “Sugar and Spice,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1936. It is not clear whether these ‘unpaid assistants’ were actually unpaid.
 Meredith Drake Reitan, “Mary Louise Schmidt: Architecture’s ‘Fairy Godmother, Patron Saint and Guardian Angel’,” August 1, 2016, lavenuesproject.com. See: https://lavenuesproject.com/2016/08/01/mary-louise-schmidt-architectures-fairy-godmother-patron-saint-and-guardian-angel/, accessed 2/20/2020
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