Los Angeles is a city that flips off history as it swaggers back into the future — at least in the popular imagination.
Once railroads connected the city to the rest of the continent and folks flocked from East to West to start from scratch. That’s what brought architect Myron Hunt to Los Angeles before he designed Occidental College’s Eagle Rock campus. He and other early Angelenos built and rebuilt; they drew street plans and blueprints, then shook them away like an Etch-a-Sketch. Take Schwab’s Drug Store in West Hollywood. It was once the networking epicenter of the adolescent film industry until it closed in 1986. Now it’s The Laugh Factory comedy club, and there’s not even a plaque outside to remember it by.
“It’s indicative of the kind of people that were in the Los Angeles area at that time, this boundless enthusiasm and complete idea that they were going to make Los Angeles and the surrounding area into the greatest city in the world,” California historian and architectural photographer Tom Zimmerman said in his lecture at the Myron Hunt in the 21st Century Symposium — hosted by Occidental College’s Institute for the Study of Los Angeles (ISLA) — April 21.
The East Side of Los Angeles is older than the west side but Northeast LA — the area immediately around Occidental — has a particularly rich history. Incorporated in 1895, Highland Park is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Eagle Rock is slightly younger but certainly was not born yesterday. It was founded as a separate city in 1911 and annexed by Los Angeles in 1923.
Old brick buildings line the streets of both neighborhoods, rusted signs from past decades’ dead businesses sometimes still clinging to the facades like memorials — or hunting trophies, depending on which side of the gentrification debate you’re on. There are some smaller museums and historical preserves, but much of the neighborhood’s history comes out in the details of its buildings.
“The architectural heritage here, I think, is actually kind of a gold mine,” Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod, director of the ISLA and a history professor at Occidental, said. “Because it isn’t like Washington, D.C. with monumental architecture that pretends like it’s Rome. It’s a lot of domestic and small-scale stuff, and a lot of things that are really eccentric.”
It’s easy to miss those details. So perhaps it’s fitting that the ISLA’s office resides on the second-and-a-half floor of Swan Hall, the most labyrinthine building on campus. Axelrod and Operations Coordinator Christian Rodriguez are the institute’s primary staff, but it also has an advisory board of more than 30 Occidental faculty and staff representatives. The institute funds programming and has community partnerships with 17 organizations such as The Lummis House and Heritage Square Museum. In addition to his role with the institute, Rodriguez works as a docent at The Lummis House on weekends. Recently, the ISLA concluded its semester-long speaker series, Everyday Architecture: The Lived Environment in Southern California, as well as the Myron Hunt Symposium.
“Occidental is in Eagle Rock now, but our roots stretch throughout much of Northeast LA,” Axelrod said.
Occidental first held classes 1887, not in Eagle Rock but in Boyle Heights. After that campus — only a single building — burned down, Occidental moved to Highland Park in 1898. The campus was near Figueroa and Avenue 50, right next to the current Metro Gold Line. During the McKinley Administration, that location was even more transit accessible, adjacent to both a streetcar line and a steam locomotive track.
“Our metro heritage is a little more extensive than we normally realize,” Axelrod said. “But it also suggests something about the fact that the Oxy bubble is not something that was always a product of Oxy.”
One of the original brick buildings from the Highland Park campus remains to this day. It’s now an apartment complex. It’s right next door to Avenue 50 Studio, an art gallery and ISLA community partner. According to Axelrod and Rodriguez, the gallery is directly descended from one of the Chicano art collectives that emerged in Highland Park around the 1970s.
In 1913, Hunt started building the current Eagle Rock campus and completed it the next year. Before Occidental relocated, Eagle Rock barely had roads. It was mostly undeveloped farmland. In fact, the college’s arrival catalyzed the construction of the area’s very first streets, the residential blocks directly outside the campus walls. According to Axelrod, that’s why the streets immediately off campus — like Alumni Avenue, Campus Road and their cross streets between York Avenue and Eagle Rock Boulevard — don’t fit neatly on the street grid, forming the shape of a teardrop or a compass arrow with its point facing west.
“It’s the college [that’s] spurring development,” Rodriguez said.
According to Director of Facilities Management Tom Polansky, who also spoke at the Myron Hunt Symposium, the plan for the campus mirrored that of a typical Roman city or town. The campus’ skeleton consisted of two axes, one running north-south between Thorne and the Academic Commons and one east-west from the Arthur G. Coons (AGC) building out onto Alumni Avenue. Although built on a classical plan, the campus’ architectural style is firmly rooted in the Spanish Colonial tradition. Axelrod explained that this style is historical fiction, and has little to do with Spanish or Mexican architecture.
Not only did Occidental spur Eagle Rock’s earliest development, it set a dominant architectural precedent.
“Oxy doesn’t just reflect, but also shapes the city planning and also just the plain architecture of the place,” Axelrod said. “It wasn’t like there was any Spanish colonial architecture before Oxy plopped itself down here.”
Unlike other corners of Los Angeles that have torn out the old to make way for the new, Occidental and its surrounding areas have fought to preserve the region’s architectural legacy. The college has added and renovated buildings over the years, but Polansky said that all of the additions follow Hunt’s original campus plan and architectural aesthetic. For instance, although buildings like the Hameetman Science Center and Berkus Hall were built in the 21st century, they still have the characteristic orange roofs and beige walls of the older buildings.
Off campus, another of ISLA’s community partners, the Highland Park Heritage Trust (HPHT), has been doing this kind of work for decades.
“They are just a great resource that our students don’t do quite enough with,” Axelrod said. “They’re also really hungry for our students to work with them.”
Founded in 1982, HPHT created the Highland Park Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) in 1994 and expanded it to include the Garvanza neighborhood in 2010. Highland Park-Garvanza is the largest HPOZ in Los Angeles and, according to Axelrod, one of the first. These districts serve to review exterior alterations to historical structures within their borders, aiming to keep a similar sense of architectural and cultural unity.
“Individual buildings in an HPOZ need not be of landmark quality on their own: it is the collection of a cohesive, unique, and intact gathering of historic resources that qualify a neighborhood for HPOZ status,” according to the Los Angeles Department of City Planning’s website.
Through the HPOZ, as well as other preservation efforts and cultural events like the Lummis Day Festival, HPHT works to preserve the area’s architectural and historical legacy. That does not just mean Victorian mansions and Craftsman homes — it includes the Figueroa business district and the Chicano art culture that emerged out of the working class Latino communities of the late twentieth century.
And, of course, there’s Chicken Boy, an imposing half-man, half-chicken effigy who stands watch over the Figueroa corridor. Once a Route 66 roadside attraction advertising a fried chicken restaurant of the same name — and now considered “The Statue of Liberty of Los Angeles” — he was brought to his current location in Highland Park in 2007, due in large part to the efforts of artist Amy Inouye.
There’s also The Lummis House. Charles Fletcher Lummis built the house from scratch with stones from the Arroyo Seco over a hundred years ago. According to the Lummis Day Community Foundation website, Lummis was the first city editor of The Los Angeles Times and a vocal advocate for Native American rights; he also co-founded the nearby Southwest Museum and was knighted by the King of Spain. Today, the house serves as a museum, showcasing Lummis’s collection of historical items. But under the city’s operation, it is only open 10 hours a week, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Moving forward, Occidental and ISLA are negotiating with the City of Los Angeles to operate The Lummis House. The ISLA would base its operations and programming out of the building. It would also continue to operate The Lummis House as a public museum during the week, although the city would still own the site. According to an article in The Eastsider, Occidental and the city have not yet reached an agreement. Occidental’s Director of Communications and Community Relations Jim Tranquada said that this is because the college needs to raise more money to fund the project.
History goes beyond records and aesthetics. Al Medrano sees every day on Facebook that history is a foundational part of a community. Members of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Facebook Group might not know Medrano by name, but they have likely seen his regular posts about neighborhood history. An Echo Park native and member of Belmont High School’s Class of 1969, he writes similar historical posts in other neighborhood Facebook groups, like those for Echo Park and Silverlake.
“This one person who responded said he was new to the Eagle Rock neighborhood, and he was fascinated by these historical posts,” Medrano said. “So there’s new ones who are discovering things about their neighborhood. I mean, where else are they going to learn it?”
Medrano’s work relates to the ISLA’s larger goal — to maintain a sense of what Northeast LA has been to better understand what it is now.
“Architecture is a really nice way to get a sense of the layered past of the places that we live in,” Axelrod said. “Because we are obviously not the first people to own this place.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Al Medrano’s last name as “Madrano.” It has been changed to the correct spelling.