A Modest Proposal for Saving Rancho Los Amigos and Helping the Homeless of Los Angeles County

A SOLUTION FOR HOMELESSNESS:

A NEW LOS ANGELES COUNTY “POOR” FARM

By Colleen Adair Fliedner

Author of the Rancho Los Amigos Centennial History Book

The words “poor farm” generally conjure up images of Oliver Twist and filthy almshouses, where half-starved men, women and children live and work in deplorable conditions. When it came to the Los Angeles County Poor Farm, however, nothing was further from the truth. When it opened in 1888 about two miles from the fledgling community of Downey, the L. A. County Poor Farm consisted of 124.4 acres of agriculturally rich farmland; two wards; a smaller, more rustic building housing a kitchen, dining room, and employees’ quarters; and several dozen residents.

While there were other county poor farms in the United States, none seems to have had the same success as L. A. County’s. The idea of combining housing for the homeless and hopeless of the County with a productive farm was nothing less than brilliant. Within 10 years of its founding, an article written about the County Farm described it as “the most beautiful, well-managed and cheerful home for those that are unfortunate, of any country on earth.” As the years passed, the word “poor” was seldom used, in spite of the fact that it was still the official name of the institution. This was done, in part, to eliminate the negative connotation associated with a County Farm. But the other reason was that Los Angeles’ Poor Farm was actually a pleasant place in its day…and it certainly beat the alternative of living on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

The County Poor Farm housed a variety of individuals with a wide range of problems. Like every other aspect of this fascinating institution, the type of patients cared for was constantly changing. By the turn of the century, the most notable difference was in the increase of elderly people brought to the Farm. This had occurred as a result of the depression of 1893, when state aid was cut to indigent men and women over the age of 60. According to County records, the elderly who were admitted to the Farm were in good health, but simply had nowhere else to go. Another group of individuals whose numbers increased after 1900 were those with mental illness, and especially those suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction, which were considered a form of insanity at that time. Indeed, the County Farm became a sort of “catchall” institution, a custodial care facility that took up the overflow from the L. A. County Hospital and the state mental hospitals.

Though there were separate male and female wards, an old man in relatively good health might have had a bed next to a 15-year-old boy with epileptic seizures, or a blacksmith with tuberculosis. In spite of this undesirable situation, State inspectors reported that the County Poor Farm was one of the cleanest, most orderly institutions of its kind in California. Unlike many contemporary county-run poor farms around the country, the men and women at the Los Angeles County Farm had plenty of food to eat and spotless buildings in which to live.

By 1898 the number of acres had grown to 227. There were groves of oranges, fields of alfalfa, oats, corn, sorghum, beets, potatoes, and various fruits and vegetables. Fifteen acres were set aside for large expanses of well-manicured lawns, a variety of shade trees, and colorful flowerbeds. Hundreds of eucalyptus trees rimmed the grounds and lined the roadways. Impressed visitors often remarked that the place was kept up so well that looked like a park, rather than a poor farm.

Even more amazing was the County Farm’s dairy. Two hundred gallons of milk were produced each day by its eighty-five cows. Part of the milk was churned into butter and a portion became the Farm’s own cheese. Chickens and hogs were raised for meat. Physically capable residents did most of the work in exchange for food, a place to stay, and a stipend for extra purchases, such as tobacco. The County Poor Farm was so successful in these endeavors that it not only supported its own expenses, there was plenty of extra food and dairy products to feed the patients at Los Angeles County Hospital.

Many residents were either too old or frail to work. These men and women were cared for at the County Farm for the rest of their lives. Unless a family member claimed their remains, they were buried in the cemetery situated at one end of the property.

In the case of the ambulatory residents, they were often taught skills to help them find jobs “on the outside.” Actually, the County’s goal was to heal the residents who could be cured, and then prepare them to become self-sufficient. Besides learning about agricultural and dairy work, professional craftsmen were employed to teach the residents a variety of skills. For instance, a cobbler instructed male residents in the art of repairing and making shoes and manufacturing artificial legs. With so many people living at the Farm, the shoe shop provided a much needed and cost-effective service. In another shop, residents were taught to weave wicker furniture, which was used throughout the buildings and gardens, as well as being sold to the general public.

After a few years, the staff began to notice that the residents who suffered with arthritis and hand injuries who performed these and similar tasks had actually improved. Thus, what initially began as a way to help these individuals earn extra money for themselves and the County Farm became the beginning of what is today known as “Occupational Therapy.” This and dozens of remarkable developments and discoveries actually began at the L. A. County Farm.

This institution, which had begun with some 40 residents in 1888, had over 200 residents by 1898. The number of buildings grew in accordance with the availability of County funds. Sometimes there weren’t enough beds, and people were turned away. That’s why it became increasingly important to rotate needy patients in, while releasing the trained and fully recuperated men back into society as soon as possible.

Among the most surprising facts was that a separate “insane” ward was built in 1907 for the burgeoning number of mentally ill patients who continued to pour in from the County Hospital’s overcrowded “insane” wards. The records noted why each patient was deemed insane and required confinement to the mental wards. By today’s standards, many of the reasons are shocking. They included: syphilis, anemia, cerebro-spinal meningitis, brain tumor, epilepsy, pneumonia, sexual derangements, typhoid fever, alcoholism, over-study, jealousy, sexual excesses, fasting during Lent, abortion, childbirth and lactation, menopause, love affair, domestic infelicity, uterine trouble, and, last but not least, masturbation.

By the 1930s, another period of building was underway. The new Spanish-style buildings were attractive, reflecting the Farm’s Superintendent, William Harriman’s, love for Old California’s mission architecture. In 1932 he took his theme a step further, changing the County Poor Farm’s name to Rancho Los Amigos, which he translated as “Home of the Friends.” Under Mr. Harriman’s leadership, Rancho Los Amigos continued its evolution, adding a hospital building and infirmaries. Apparently, most of the patients thrived, fondly describing Rancho as their “Home Away From Home.” They expressed their sentiments through letters and poems, such as this poem written by a woman patient in 1932:

OUR HOME

You call this the poor house? Nay friend, not so.

This house was built to God’s own plan,

Noble thought and loving hand.

 

This is not poverty’s abode, but wealth and love.

Here God moulds, makes, creates characters; and takes the ones He wants

For fitted works in His great house above.

You’ll find within these open doors welcome and protection from cares,

Worldly strife, wickedness, and human woes.

The best of all we need for happiness.

 

Behind these stately walls do roam

Kindly hearts and culture, too.

Souls filled with music, from whose faces shone

Thoughts as a draught of Heaven’s own blue.

We have the best which can be given,

Heat, food, best of matrons, nurses kind.

Superintendent’s mind.

Doctors so wonderful.

Nay, this is not a poorhouse, friend, but earthly heaven.

 

The fact that so many patients felt this way is not surprising, when one considers the excellent care they received and the way they were welcomed to their “new home.” A small booklet given to each patient began:

“Our new friend, we welcome you to our little city. We hope you will find here a pleasant and comfortable home, with health and happiness. To this end, we need your help, not only in compliance with instructions of the medical staff who are working for your good, but in your thoughtful consideration and assistance of those who are weaker and less fortunate. You will not be burdened with oppressive rules. The one called the Golden Rule covers them all.”

Since its humble beginnings in 1888, what began as a home for the County’s needy has evolved into the world-renowned Rancho National Rehabilitation Center. Most of the County Farm era’s buildings on the south side of Imperial Highway have been demolished, leaving a large tract of land empty, with the exception of a few structures which have been repurposed. Could this County-owned property provide the space to allow the homeless of Los Angeles to erect their tents? Restrooms with showers like one would find in a campground could be erected. Perhaps converting empty shipping containers could be used for housing, as is being done in other cities around the country. Like the old County Farm, community gardens could be planted to provide fresh produce for the residents. Food banks could deliver meat and other necessities to prepare meals. Volunteers could teach some of the formerly homeless modern-day skills and, perhaps, help them find jobs.

The concept of bringing the homeless to a place where they would be safe, clean, fed, given rehab, and taught ways to re-enter society worked beautifully in the past. Why can’t it work now?


Video of Esotouric’s Richard Schave giving public comment to the Historical Landmarks and Records Commission of L.A. County in support of saving Rancho Los Amigos and using it for the public good.

The Baltimore Hotel, Empty No More

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The Baltimore Hotel opened in 1910 with all good intentions, a first-class reinforced concrete, fireproof structure just across Fifth Street from John Parkinson’s handsome 1906 King Edward Hotel.

The owner-builder was T. Ashton Fry, and the architect Arthur Roland Kelly, whose later commissions include the William S. Hart estate and the Arthur Letts, Jr. estate (better known as the Playboy Mansion).

There were 215 rooms and apartments, and the style was said to be Spanish Colonial (we don’t see it). Today there are 202 rooms, but only 76 residents, which is a troubling statistic for a building that is legally bound to operate as low-income housing for decades to come. But as at the King Edward, tenancy declined precipitously since it was purchased out of bankruptcy in 2012. Neighborhood reporter JD Kelly (Universal Network News) documented the hotel’s habitability crisis, but the city just let it slide.

But that was then.

The Baltimore, like its neighbor King Edward and Charles Bukowski’s beloved Madison deeper East in Skid Row, has now been purchased by the Healthy Housing Foundation of AIDS Healthcare, and will soon be filled with formerly homeless and chronically ill Angelenos in need of a place to call home. In addition to housing people, and restoring decaying historic elements of these landmark buildings, HHF is trying to make a point: adaptive reuse of SRO hotel facilities is much cheaper and faster than building new ground up housing, and should be part of L.A. city’s and county’s policy for dealing with the homeless crisis. As preservationists who care about our homeless neighbors and fiscal responsibility, we think it’s an idea worth talking about.

To celebrate the purchase, The Baltimore will be open for tours today from 10:30am-12:30pm.

Here’s just a taste of her fascinating 108-year history:

When she opened, Angelenos called her the “New” Baltimore, to distinguish from the hotel’s original location at 7th & Olive. That was such a prime piece of downtown real estate that in 1907, the Los Angeles Athletic Club bought the turreted 1896 hotel for $450,000 with the intention of demolishing it; its new, million dollar clubhouse was erected on the site in 1912, and still stands.

The New Baltimore, a more modest establishment than the original, was completed by fall 1910. Among the first guests to check in was a union fellow from back east, just stopping briefly in Los Angeles to place a dynamite bomb against a wall of General Otis’ open shop Los Angeles Times. 21 people died. (Yes, we have a bus tour about it.)

And the Baltimore, which in its old digs had regularly featured in the society pages as a site for banquets and social shindigs, seems to have adopted a deliberately low profile, perhaps reasoning no press was better than “visit the New Baltimore, favorite stop of terrorist bombers.”

Civil War Musicians in a Memorial Day parade, Los Angeles Street, between 5th & 6th Streets, looking north, Los Angeles, ca.1915 (USC, California Historical Society Collection)

Upon completion, T. Ashton Fry had leased the hotel out to operators C.W. and E.E. Hatch. This arrangement immediately went south. In May 1911, Fry sued the Hatches in superior court for $8587 in unpaid rent, and $5000 in damages. In addition to stiffing Fry on rent, the Hatches had permitted contractor J.H. Proper (aka The Human Mole) to illegally excavate a west-leading tunnel beneath Werdin Alley, through which sewer, hot water and steam pipes were run between the Baltimore and the Conda and Renne hotels on South Main Street. Proper’s network of Downtown service tunnels, all dug in violation of city law, came to light when one connecting the Alexandria Hotel and Chester Williams Building caused a cave-in of Fifth Street.

 

Later managers avoided such controversy. But the world was changing fast, and the solid Beaux Arts travelers lodgings of 1910, with modest lobbies and simple accommodations, couldn’t compete for the travelers’ dollar with air conditioned, modern hotels, with their cocktail lounges, swimming pools and marketing budgets.

The hotel’s ads, when they bothered to run them, spotlighted the good food in the trendy, cafeteria-style dining room. Patrons liked visually confirming that their meals would be agreeable, and saving money on tips; these show-me lunchrooms became so popular that one wag nicknamed Los Angeles “Sunny Cafeteria.” But a good cafeteria wasn’t enough to bring in the tourist trade.

Downtown’s energies migrated westward. Fifth Street had once been the way into town for visitors arriving at the various train depots near the river, and grand East-facing rooftop and wall signs welcomed them. But when arrivals were consolidated at Union Station, The Nickel lost its luster.

In time, The Baltimore became a residency hotel, offering rooms by the week, weeks turning into years. And when the Rolling Stones made Los Angeles their base for portions of their 1970 American tour, Robert Frank brought them down to pre-redevelopment Skid Row to shoot some promotional film for the Exile on Main Street project (yes, it’s L.A.’s Main Street!) in which the Baltimore’s awning has a brief cameo above Charlie Watts’ shoulder.

Over on Main Street itself, a little logo inspiration was found at a dirty picture house.

But back to Baltimore and its 108 years at the center of the action. A spin through the newspaper archives reveals a house of sorrows and occasional flashes of mirth.

Christmas week, 1911: as oil driller Frank Miller attempts to slash the throat of his common law wife Josephine Swift on the sidewalk in front of the Baltimore—her teenage daughter wrestled the razor away—Marie Pinson, aged 18, is discovered semi-conscious and despondent in a 3rd floor restroom. She tells manager E. H. Hess that she’d run away from her home in Los Angeles intending to join a motion picture company, but had lost her $100 stake and couldn’t find work. Happily, Miss Pinson was only drunk and not poisoned.

July 1914: the hotel is the site of a weird, locked door mystery. Elwood Beaver, a Philadelphia railroad man on a cross-country tourist jaunt, checked in on a Sunday afternoon. He went to his room and was not seen again. The chambermaid knocked daily, but got no response. On Tuesday afternoon, concerned hotel staff broke his door down and discovered Beaver gasping on the floor, near death. The room was spattered with blood, and Beaver’s skull and arm were fractured. It would be reasonable to presume the visitor had been attacked, but nobody had heard a fight, and the room still contained Beaver’s cash, watch and other effects. After the dying man was carried away, detectives examined the scene and determined that Beaver had suffered a violent attack of tuberculosis, spraying blood and injuring himself while trying, in vain, to call for help.

September 1916: suffering from depression relating to the impact of the Great War on his numerous international investments, Canadian real estate and mine owner J. Anson Wheeler, 54, slipped away from his bride Isabelle in their apartment in the Bryson overlooking Westlake Park and spent nine days brooding in a room at the Baltimore. Then he checked out, for good. Detectives hired by Mrs. Wheeler conveyed the grim news that when Wheeler had shot himself in his hotel room, he had in his hand her newspaper photograph announcing their recent wedding, on which he had written “Darling wife, please forgive me.” He was buried at Monrovia, with the first Mrs. Wheeler.

July 1916: Miss Christine Buist, until recently Mrs. Dr. Horace Pierce of Santa Barbara, doggedly worked the Baltimore’s serpentine telephone exchange. She was the daughter of a millionaire, and her former husband’s people were rich, too. But her pride was such that she needed to earn her fare back home to New Jersey, and so had refused alimony from her estranged spouse and would not ask her family for help. The lady’s public complaints must have been particularly humiliating for the Pierce family; having failed to secure $100,000 in an alienation of affection suit against them, perhaps that was payment enough.

August 1922: When she checked in under a pseudonym to rest up from an exhausting day, she was a nobody. But soon Clara Phillips was the notorious Tiger Woman, on the lam after crushing the skull of her husband’s mistress with a hammer. That no-account husband parked Clara “Jackson” at the Baltimore while scheming how to get her out of town, and his hair. When asked later about her stay, Clara claimed to have suffered absolute amnesia from the moment of the murder—which she blamed on her pal Peggy Caffee—to when she woke up in her room. There’s another marketing line never used: “The Baltimore Hotel: You’ll Sleep Like A Baby, No Matter What You’ve Done.”

Let’s leave the Baltimore’s back pages with a sweeter sort of tale. In 1971 and again in 1972, the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith wrote about his friends Bill and Maggi Bender, the hotel’s managers who lived on the 6th floor with their pet iguana, Heathcliff. The Benders “prefer an iguana to a dog because an iguana requires more imagination, which is why they prefer old radio to contemporary television.” The couple, young actors who loved their colorful neighborhood, were hardcore collectors of old time radio air check tapes, and welcomed friends like Smith to sit for hours in the heart of Skid Row, eyes closed and listening to golden age recordings of Jack Benny, The Green Hornet, Lum n’ Aber, Fred Allen and scores more.

The Benders were special people, as Smith observed. Where business interests saw a slum worth wrecking filled with dirty, useless people, the Benders saw a great place to call home, packed with interesting architecture and colorful characters, like Porno Bill who ran the bookstore and Frank the hallelujah man. And Dodger Stadium and the Music Center were each only 12 minutes away (“we saw ‘Man of La Mancha four times!'”).

Time has a way of flickering in and out of focus at the corner of Fifth and Los Angeles Streets, and bringing interesting people into port. Why not come by some time and see what the Baltimore has in store for you? Here are some of the gems you might see.

How Canadian Developer Onni Group “Preserved” the Art Deco Seattle Times Building

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Stop us if you’ve heard this one before:

A venerable local newspaper, fallen on hard times in the aftermath of the financial crisis, sells its architecturally-significant, centrally-located Art Deco headquarters and two attached buildings, comprising an entire city block, to a multi-national development company. The developer expresses affection for the site’s history, and makes preservation of the main newspaper building the centerpiece of a proposed project. The twin-tower mixed-use residential, retail and public plaza project is vastly out of scale and requires zoning changes. When preservationists express concern about protection of the historic resources, they’re assured that the developer is a good steward with the best intentions. Besides, we’re in a housing crisis, so build, baby, build!

Sound familiar? If you’re a Californian, you might recognize the beats of the recent history of the Los Angeles Times, with the paper’s real estate split off under Tribune’s ownership and its historic headquarters sold to Vancouver-based Onni Group.

But the story you just read is actually about the landmarked Seattle Times ( Robert C. Reamer, 1931), which Onni Group purchased in 2013 and neglected so profoundly that the normal rules for protected buildings were waived: in February 2016, Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections approved (archive link) immediate demolition of the landmark for reasons of public safety.

November 2015: “Squatters leave the old Seattle Times building at 1120 John St., after waking up during Thursday’s fire” (Steve Ringman / Seattle Times)

During the first three years of Onni’s ownership, the Seattle Times became a squatter’s den (archive link), home to hundreds of homeless people, their pets and their troubles. Metal thieves operated openly, stripping the landmark of its historic artifacts and plumbing. The squatters were rousted, but immediately returned, prying off the thin plywood panels Onni Group installed to keep them out. When the police ordered the landlord to properly secure the building, Onni Group missed the deadline. Taxpayers covered the costs of constant police and paramedic calls. There were fires, overdoses, gas leaks and suffering that can’t be quantified.

Then came the wrecking ball and bulldozers, spelling the end of the Seattle Times and a clearing a nearly clean slate for a massive development, recently changed from housing to office towers, in the shadow of the Amazon.com headquarters.

February 2017: An old press that once printed the Sunday color comics section is partially exposed. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

(But before the walls came down, the newspaper building told one last story. Up on the roof, a hand-made banner went up the flagpole. The Times printed a photo and reported on the common ¢ents activists who were calling for Seattle’s hundreds of vacant buildings to be made available to serve the city’s homeless population. That’s a conversation Los Angeles should be having, too.)

Demolition began in October 2016. Today, just a couple of sad walls from the landmark Seattle Times building survive, and Onni Group is busily building upward.

The Art Deco Los Angeles Times Building is not a protected city landmark like the Seattle Times Building was. We believe it should be a landmark, which is why we’ve filed an Historic-Cultural Monument application, which is now under consideration, with a hearing on July 19 (Update: the second hearing is Thursday, September 20 and we still need your comments and emails!). At the direction of the Office of Historic Resources, our application includes all three entwined historic structures on the site: Gordon B. Kaufmann’s 1935 Times Building (including the Globe Lobby and its fixtures), Rowland H. Crawford’s 1948 Mirror tower and William L. Pereira’s 1973 corporate headquarters. These three buildings together tell the story of the Los Angeles Times and Southern California.

Some people believe that it’s only Pereira’s building that is threatened by Onni Group’s plans. But the Pereira can’t be demolished without tearing a giant hole in the Art Deco Kaufmann building’s west facade. And the Pereira is a good, if unfashionable, building that deserves to be considered on its architectural merits, which are largely invisible from street level, but reveal themselves when you step inside.

As Harry Chandler told the Los Angeles Times, “Developers are wont to change their minds based on market conditions, not preservation needs. [Onni] is not an L.A. company and they don’t have credentials for caring for historic buildings in our city. We shouldn’t leave that to chance.”

He’s right.

Onni Group might prove to be a better steward of our great newspaper’s home than they were in Seattle. It would be hard to be a worse one.

But let’s not just take their word for it. Please join us at the Cultural Heritage Commission on Thursday, July 19 and speak for the stone, the neon, the glass and the Globe. (Update: the second hearing is Thursday, September 20 and we still need your comments and emails!) These buildings shaped the Southern California we love, and they deserve to be preserved.

Workmanship of such poor quality is not acceptable.

The King Edward Hotel: Empty No More

Michael Weinstein describes what’s next for the King Edward Hotel

Yesterday, we attended an event at the stately King Edward Hotel (John Parkinson, 1906) in the heart of historic Skid Row, where Michael Weinstein of AIDS Healthcare Foundation introduced the new Healthy Housing Foundation model of housing L.A.’s homeless and chronically ill population quickly in historic hotels and motels.

The previous owners of the King Edward were keeping about 110 of the 150 rooms vacant, as we learned when a longtime tenant posted a disturbing video last summer. The HHF plan is to fix the empty rooms up and have the building fully inhabited by summer. The cost per unit at the King Edward is about $70,000 for the purchase of the building and simple upgrades, as opposed to the Measure HHH budget of $434,000/unit for brand new construction.

Weinstein asked why the County isn’t housing people in County General Hospital, and why the City of LA plans to demolish Parker Center rather than using it as desperately needed housing. These are good questions.

It was an interesting and inspiring press conference, in one of the most beautiful, though neglected, landmarks of old Skid Row. We’re looking forward to the King Edward’s new life as a place people call home, and to some much needed preservation of the historic features. (But sorry, Presidential history buffs, Teddy Roosevelt didn’t really sleep here!)

We hope you enjoy this photo tour, including the grand lobby with its faux marble columns and Grecian mosaic floor, and a trip upstairs to see one of the newly renovated rooms (simple but dignified, with terrific views), the long, haunting hallways with their shared baths, and some doors still showing the bright blue seal of the Coroner’s Office. How sad and stupid to think that a person died, and their room was left empty, while tens of thousands sleep in the streets of Los Angeles.

Old buildings need new ideas, and we’re glad to see the great King Edward is where they’re being hatched.

Update: we returned a week later, and found an entire empty wing on the second floor being readied for residents.