Soroptimist House at CSULB, damaged by recent quakes, closed as plans move forward for alumni center

When Cal State Long Beach was a bare, treeless expanse, the Soroptimist House opened as an unassuming but cozy student union for the new college. It was christened in January 1957 with a formal tea.

Last weekend, the mid-century modern structure, already termite-infested and rotting, was red-tagged, after suffering “major damage from the recent quakes,” according to an assessment sent last weekend to campus officials.

“The building has further settled, structural connections have been further compromised and load-bearing columns” can no longer handle proper loads, Mark Zakhour, director of design and construction services, wrote to administrators. Officials closed the building and made plans to evacuate the Interfaith center, the last group using it. The Soroptimist House will likely be torn down by fall and replaced with a new 6,000-square-foot alumni center.

The Soroptimist House was deemed unsafe after a pair of earthquakes near Ridgecrest on July 4 and July 5.

While campus officials had long planned to repurpose the old building, it’s a sad end for a structure that figured prominently in the campus’ early days. And preservationists are not happy.

Lee Brown, who graduated with an English degree in 1960, recalls the ranch-style house, which has a meeting room, kitchen and tiered garden out back, as a “pretty bare bones” gathering place for student leaders as well as fraternities and sororities. In 2013, he told the Daily 49er the house was “a generous gift to the campus … it would really be a shame if it was just allowed to turn to dust.”

Paula Riley, a CSULB grad who now teaches performing arts at Wilson High School, remembers doing a cabaret in the  soroptimist house around 1998. “We had theatrical lighting and little cafe tables … it was awesome,” she said. “The perfect spot.”

In the mid 1950s, the Long Beach Soroptimists raised money to design and build the structure and donated it to the Associated Student Body, an auxiliary funded by student fees. Lois Swanson, then a beloved associate dean of students, was a member, as were several staffers at the time.

The Soroptimist House of Long Beach. Photo appears to be from early 1960s.

The Soroptimists (literally “best for women” in Latin) were formed to help empower women and girls and raise money for scholarships. Once a robust group with hundreds of members, the Long Beach chapter now has about 40 members, but still raises tens of thousands a year.

“It was homelike,” said longtime Soroptimist member Renee Simon. “It was for students. The campus was only about six years old, there was no place to chat in between classes.”

“While we’re saddened to see Soroptimist House replaced, we’re pleased it’s served its purpose well for so many years,” said Long Beach Soroptimist past President Diane DeWalsche.

The house was designed by local architects Francis O. Merchant and J. Richard Shelly. Shelly also designed the Petroleum Club, another mid-century structure with a shaky future. The Petroleum Club, built in 1958, is in escrow and its fate is uncertain.

The Soroptimist House got a 700-square-foot addition in 1961, reportedly designed by Edward Killingsworth, the famous Long Beach architect who laid out much of the Cal State Long Beach campus.

The Soroptimist House of Long Beach. Photo appears to be from early 1960s.

While the Soroptimists are resigned and said they’d be OK with a plaque on the new  Anna W. Ngai Alumni and Visitor Center, the Long Beach Heritage people are not.

“A plaque is not good preservation,” said Long Beach Heritage Executive Director Sarah Locke, adding the house is “a significant part of the early campus history. It’s the first student union.” She added the Soroptimists have a legacy of support and “it has significance as a mid-century residence.”

The fact that the structure will soon see the wrecking ball is a blot on an otherwise stellar record, said Locke, who called CSULB “one of the most cohesive campuses in the Cal State system. It’s one of the best master-planned campuses.”

Charles Phoenix, the L.A.-based author, humorist and expert on mid-century architecture Americana, said the Soroptimist House is “not only a California classic style but it is also rare. There are very few of these structures still standing.”

As rare as it may be now, mid-century modern doesn’t always hold up well, said CSULB assistant professor Tom Tredway, who teaches architecture and design history. “One of the challenges with historic preservation is that the architects often embraced new materials like Formica and Masonite that were often cheaper … and those new materials don’t wear well.”

The Soroptimist House continued to be used as a meeting place on the growing, space-starved campus, even after the University Student Union went up in 1970. By 2012, former Associated Students Executive Director Richard Haller was telling the student senate that the building had no maintenance fund and its condition was deteriorating. Then-ASI President John Haberstroh told the Daily 49er in 2013 that “everybody has great ideas for what we can do with the building, but the issue is where we are going to get the money. It’s a Catch-22.”

ASI spokesman James Ahumada issued a statement saying “the Soroptimist House has a long history on campus and ASI is proud to have played a part in that. Over the years ASI has invested in the 64-year-old facility as a venue and meeting space for many student organizations, departments and our alumni. Of course, as the student body grew and more venue space became available on campus, such as the USU, the use of the facility lessened over the years.”

He said the most utilized space at the facility was the back patio, which hosted events such as ASI’s Poet’s Lounge and the Alumni Association’s Concerts in the Grove. The most recent structural work was completed in this area to level the pavers and install a deck.

LBSU President Jane Close Conoley said the university took control of the building three years ago, not long after student leaders got an assessment that fixing the Soroptimist House would cost an eye-popping $800,000.

By then there were no plans, she said, to renovate the deteriorating house, but to turn it into something new when the money came in. The new alumni center will be three times bigger than the Soroptimist House and will serve as a modern gathering place for students and alums to connect, supporters say.

The president said she’s open to incorporating the house’s rich history into the new structure. “I think we can make a compromise with them in terms of using the new building,” Conoley said. “We want the new building to have a historical part … ‘Here’s the history of the university.’ We can highlight contributions of the Soroptimists.” But, she added, “It would be ridiculous to rebuild something that has no practical use for us now.”

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Barbara Kingsley-Wilson is a full-time lecturer at California State University, Long Beach and an adviser to the campus’s student run newspaper, the Daily 49er. A journalist with over 20 years in the field, she continues to write and spends her summers as a general assignment reporter for the Long Beach Post. When she’s not drilling her pupils on the details of AP style, she’s likely practicing her downward dog or traversing the city perched atop her mountain bike.
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