Renaissance Women

Inside the Retrofit of San Francisco's Historic Women's Athletic Club

When it welcomed its first members in 1915, the Women's Athletic Club of San Francisco was breaking new ground. Intended as a place for post-Victorian women to discover the benefits of exercise, "it was very forward-thinking," says Carol Ann Rogers, president of the Metropolitan Club of San Francisco, as the enterprise is now known. "The Metropolitan Club was to be a very different kind of club, which it still is today."

A decade ago, members of the first women's athletic club in the West commissioned a condition report on its 1917 Renaissance Revival building in downtown San Francisco. It quickly became clear that the athletic facilities, including the swimming pool, had to be updated, and the six-story, 97,000-square-foot building needed a major seismic retrofit and code-compliant emergency exits. 

"In some areas where members might gather… there was no good way [out]," says Rogers, who was on the board at the time. "You had to climb out of windows, and finally jump six feet into the parking lot. Imagine someone in high heels or who is 80-years old."

The board decided to embark on an $18 million project to repair, retrofit, and restore its Renaissance Revival building in time to celebrate its centennial. During the project, completed two years ago, the club remained open. Some of the club's architecturally savvy members, including Alice Carey, a restoration and preservation architect, Dr. Anthea Hartig, director of the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and architect Amy McNamara, advised the architects and engineers on the club's needs, suggesting ways to protect the architectural integrity of the building. 

"This was one of the harder things we have done to date," says Jack Munson, a partner with FME Architecture and Design in San Francisco. "It was truly a group effort."

Designed by architects Bliss & Faville, who worked as draftsmen for McKim, Mead and White early in their careers, the building was constructed in two phases, and today has a C-shaped plan. An addition that doubled the size of the club was built in 1922.

Unfortunately, the two separate wings, each built with different construction techniques behind the building's seamless facade on Sutter Street, created a potential hazard: In the event of a major earthquake, the 1922 addition, constructed in heavier poured concrete, could tear apart the lighter, original east wing, built with a steel-frame and wood floor joists.

The solution came in the form of a new central interior staircase in the light well, which also provided the much-needed emergency exit. "It can take forces from both wings, and get them to the ground," Munson explains. Steel beams were also added under the floors, the bottom of the building was braced, sheer walls were installed, and braces and trusses were added to restructure and support the building over the pool, located in the basement (which was entirely rebuilt). More bracing on the upper part of the building is still necessary, but the club will have to raise money for that final piece of the project, not expected to happen anytime soon. "Due to the immense cost of it, it won't be in our generation," says Clint Prescott, the club's general manager.

A New Look

The club's athletic facilities were updated and restored, and its pool, where its earliest members swam in pumped-in salt water, was closed for about 18 months. Today, more light pours in from the skylights into the renovated pool and sauna area. Light fixtures with cast-plaster rosettes highlight mermaids that grace the capitals of its rebuilt and restored columns, crown moldings and new aqua-colored tile work.

A cabana area off the pool provides individual and shared vintage-style dressing rooms for swimmers. Rows are named after the club's founding members, and old swimsuits are encased behind glass with the club's original logo, WAC. The gym has been enlarged to house more equipment, and a room added for group exercise classes. The club also has a Craftsman-style tennis court, with exposed steel trusses and wood beams, intact on the fifth floor.

In the end, architects were able to balance safety and beauty.

"There was a lot of work that, had it been left to an architect with no sensitivity, it might have been done differently," Rogers says.

 A Revolutionary Notion

The idea for the Women's Athletic Club was first broached by Elizabeth Pillsbury, when she returned from a trip to Chicago in 1912, inspired by the Chicago Women's Athletic Club.

Pillsbury, married to prominent San Francisco attorney Horace Pillsbury, convinced friends of the need for the first such club in the West. In 1914, letters were sent to prospective members, including "girls who work for a living," the San Francisco Examiner reported. 

In its early days, the club had permanent residents, including the indefatigable Mae Boggs, a suffragette and preservationist, whose carefully kept scrapbooks on club life are now among the club's archives.

Today, as it nears its centennial, the iconic club still thrives with about 1,000 members. Metropolitan Club members have access to its updated athletic facilities and spa, dining rooms, a library, bar, and guest rooms.

The club proudly nominated the building to the National Register of Historic Places, and it was listed in 2004. "The Metropolitan Club shines as not only a remarkable manifestation of women's heritage in San Francisco," Hartig says, "but as an inspirational example of the power of modern women to protect the house their foremothers built and secure it for the next century."

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