A Brief History of the Topanga Community Center
In 1964, Lee Kelly was a single mom who had recently moved to Topanga. She met her new neighbors who told her there was a yearly Children’s Christmas party at the Community House. She made her way up the hill with two kids in tow, and wandered into the strangest place she’d ever seen—a brick building with a dirt floor and no roof. A big fire was burning in a big fireplace; there were presents and toys for the kids and Santa made an appearance. “What is this place?” she wondered.
The Topanga Community House was born as an idea in 1949 to give young people in the canyon a safe place to gather and play. Seven founding members, all women, established the Topanga Woman’s Club. Together, they hosted card and dance parties, cake raffles, bingo games, held rummage sales, and even donated livestock to support their efforts. A 12-acre parcel was offered to the club in 1950 and a decade later, the shell of the house was built and the mortgage paid, all done by local volunteer labor and love.
The details of the story are laid out in the Topanga Historical Society’s well-know book, The Topanga Story. (available at https://topangahistoricalsociety.org)
In November, 1948, the ladies of the canyon held meetings to organize a club that could purchase property and sponsor the building of a community house. They immediately began to raise money with bake sales, card parties and dances which combined fun and fundraising.
On June 23, 1949, the Topanga Community Woman’s Club was officially recognized by the state of California as a not-for-profit corporation and the search began for a suitable building site. Final choice was a 12-acre parcel owned by Mr. and Mrs. E. R. Julian on a bluff east of Topanga Canyon Blvd. across from their creekside ranch. On the market at $12,000, the acreage was offered to the club for $6,000. A down payment of $500 was made and an agreement signed for $50 per month at a modest rate of interest. The money was raised with sales of the “Memory Cook Book.”
The members of the Woman’s Club devised all number of ways to get the house built. They engaged in bake sales, raffles and parties and contests galore. They also elicited donations from local contractors and service professionals for materials, labor and skills. To start they created a “nickel a brick” drive to purchase the bricks for the walls of the building. Volunteers gathered to toil at the site; the structure began to emerge. It took years to raise the funds to complete the building. Some locals took out second mortgages on their homes to raise enough funds to complete the roof. The house that was once a dream became a reality.
Lee Kelly and her late husband, Richard Kelly, were hard-working caretakers of the Community House for almost 20 years. “In my time, we dealt with a number of people who misunderstood that the place was actually private property. They paid taxes and had a right to be there, they said, as they fired up the BBQ they’d brought with them. We had to tell them that the area was not created by their taxes and was not safe for fires of any kind.”
To this day, the Topanga Community Center remains a private, non-profit entity that survives solely on membership dues and fundraising activities, the main one being Topanga Days Country Fair.
While dealing with this proprietary attitude, Kelly and other members of the Topanga Community Club (TCC as it was called for some time) were devising other ways to serve the community. There was rarely enough money to do anything but there was no shortage of ideas and pure determination. The ball field was built in the mid-1980s through the blood, sweat and tears of volunteers, so that all of Topanga’s kids would have a place to play.
Someone had to get those volunteers going. Kelly said, “We organized volunteer work parties for brush control and land work. The ball field was developing as a place for Topanga kids to play and, in 1985, we managed development of the ball field where, with the help of volunteers, we revived the well, obtained a tank to store water that we plumbed from the well up to the tank that sat above the horseshoe pits, down to the field and then to the entire field itself. We laid the sprinkler system, dug post holes, purchased poles and fencing and erected them, and sewed together donated torn golf course netting and hung it.”
Kelly considers keeping the ball field committee and work field parties going her greatest contribution. That’s what made the ball field happen, that and the labor and goodwill of dozens of volunteers.
In 2011, Kelly Rockwell felt inspired to attend a TCC Board meeting to make a proposal for a new playground. The old one had been built in the ’70s and was tired and neglected. She realized what a great meeting place it was and could be for families with young children.
“They were open to the idea, but I was going to be responsible for all aspects of improvements. I knew a few parents at the time and we had meetings at the playground while our kids played around us.” said Rockwell.
Nonie Shore agreed to co-share the committee and that’s when things really took off. “Fundraising for the playground was sort of a grassroots venture,” says Shore. “I started by going to all of my friends in the Canyon and the TCC Board. We figured the more people that we could get to donate what they could and then we would all spread the word.”
The TCC oversaw the project and ultimately chose to go with playground design firm Play by Design that would call on the collective community to build the final product. During a “Design Day” event, a playground architect talked to children in the classrooms at Topanga Elementary and took their sketches to draw inspiration. She worked all day and unveiled the final playground design that evening.
“The playground is very similar to that original drawing,” said Rockwell. “Many families contributed funds and committed to upkeep and maintenance of a new playground. It was so inspiring!”
Once they secured matching funds through L.A. County Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s office, they knew the playground would be built.
Eighteen months of planning and fundraising culminated with the opening of a brand new, state-of-the-art playground at the Topanga Community Club. Topanga’s Only Playground (TOP) was built in true community style—swing by swing.
The TOP Committee was an extraordinarily organized bunch. Build Week was launched with several shifts per day, and over 600 volunteers, an entire shed of donated and loaned tools and teams of food preparers to keep everyone fed and taken care of.
When the new playground opened to the public, there was a rush of nearly 40 children swarming the new equipment. Standing on a fresh bed of fragrant wood chips were a brand new tree house, a castle, swings, slides, a professional fireman’s pole and a wobbly bridge—all designed and built with input from the local children. The new playground serves children of all ages, with picnic tables and benches, a parents’ area and a community bulletin board.
As a privately owned non-profit, TCC does not receive tax income from the county or state. Since 1949, the TCC has served generations of Topangans and relies on community support.
The idea of being a volunteer goes to an entirely new level when it comes to being elected to a position on the TCC Board. It is the Board’s responsibility and privilege not only to maintain and care for the entire property but also create new programs and ways to raise funds to keep the doors open. Board members engage in months-long planning efforts to produce the now massive three day Topanga Days Country Fair and Memorial Day Parade. It takes a special talent to persevere in such unpaid jobs that are equivalent to being a CEO or other officer of a medium-sized company. Our current Board has been at it for many years. Their inspiration and dedication often goes unnoticed.
The Topanga Community Center remains a rare entity—a private, non-profit community center serving a diverse, eclectic community. Every Canyon resident is encouraged to become a part of this community hub. That means signing up to be a member, but also joining in some of the various activities there. The Community House is a meeting place for the Topanga Canyon Seniors (Sages), Topanga Teens, Anonymous Groups, the Topanga Historical Society, the Topanga Chamber of Commerce, the Topanga Symphony, Spiritual and Health gatherings, and many low-cost programs for young children. The adjacent ballfield is the home field of the Topanga Youth Baseball and Soccer League. It remains a wonderful event rental space for private weddings, parties and other community events. https://topangacommunitycenter.org
The Community House today.