This room is full of architectural marvels. One wall houses a cathedral-sized window that frames the Eastside skyline. A series of rows of wooden-backed theater seats face it. They arch up three stories high at an almost dizzying angle towards the ceiling.
A single piece of furniture, a platform-like bed, is located in the middle of the room.
The operating room, unchanged since the last patient left Los Angeles County General Hospital 14 years ago, embodies the rich opportunities and great challenges of an institution that has become too old and declining to continue as it is but is too valuable to be thrown out.
Like so many of the hospital’s 1.2 million square feet of wards and laboratories, its operating rooms are filled with intriguing possibilities and mind-boggling questions. What else could an operating room do, other than surgery?
After years of hand-wringing and stagnation over the fate of the 100-year-old Art Deco monolith, which towers above Boyle Heights for over 100 years, some answers are starting to emerge.
Los Angeles County, the owner of the former hospital, launched a multiyear program to transform the H-shaped building into affordable and homeless housing. This building will be the center of a “Healthy Village” with up to 1,400 units that provide housing and health care. It will have ample space for community activities, social services, and retail.
The county has pledged $250 million using state and local funds to prepare the 19-story building for its reconstruction. This alone will prove to be a major undertaking: removal of asbestos and other hazardous materials, upgrade of electrical and water systems, and installation of air conditioning and fire sprinklers. Also, restore inoperative elevators. And finally, build seismic shear walls. Preparations are expected to begin in the spring and end by the summer.
All that’s needed is to get the building into shape so it can be reborn as affordable apartments.
County officials will be looking for a developer to partner with them on the $1 billion project.
It won’t happen overnight. The county will consult with community leaders throughout the year to establish broad goals for a proposed development plan that will include the hospital building as well as 12 acres of land to its west.
Negotiations with the developer will determine the final timeline. Construction would begin in 2024 and be completed in 2026.
The county will continue to develop the 8-acre Restorative Care Village on separate parcels in the northwest quadrant of its grounds. This complex provides temporary and permanent housing for those with mental and medical needs.
The two “villages” will eventually cover 35 acres. They stretch from Los Angeles County, USC Medical Center (General Hospital’s replacement) on the southeast to Mission Road in the west. The reimagined hospital building towers over everything, looking like a cathedral with two entrances.
The mothballed monument was an Eastside resident’s object of curiosity and irritation for more than a decade. They watched the growth of homeless camps around the monument and wondered why such a valuable resource was not being used.
Frank Villalobos, the founder of Barrio Planners, a prominent Eastside design firm, stated that there had been discussions and studies about the cost of rebuilding the hospital. However, it was not feasible. “So, we knew for some time that something had to be done.”
The demolition of an outmoded building was not permitted due to architectural, cultural, and environmental reasons.
It is one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture at a large scale in the city.
Its importance as the center of the country’s healthcare infrastructure is illustrated in Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta’s concrete statues that overlook the entrance. The Angel of Mercy comforts an infirm couple, while Galen, Louis Pasteur, and Galen flank them.
Ceiling murals by Hugo Ballin show Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, and his sons inside the foyer. According to a review posted on the Los Angeles Conservancy website, it suggests that the foyer is “a high place for the gods and their earthly tools.”
Michael Lehrer, the ex-president of the American Institute of Architects Los Angeles, stated, “Here you have the largest and most magnificent, a magnificent building that has potential to connect past, present, and future.” It could be very powerful, I think.
General Hospital, like City Hall and Griffith Observatory, is a part of Los Angeles’ identity. It stands tall and proud in views from the 10, 5, and 10 freeways, or from a window seat on LAX’s flight path. The iconic hospital from the soap opera of the name is also a fixture of popular culture.
It was a more intimate presence in many lives than any other landmark in Los Angeles.
Monica Alcaraz, a Highland Park resident, said that she feels like she’s home when driving back to the city from outside. She was born in one of its labyrinthine corridors and has lived its complex history.
After suffering a heart attack in the mid-1990s, her mother was saved there.
Alcaraz gave birth in the Women’s and Children’s Hospital to her son. The building was demolished last summer. In a more dark and tragic chapter in the hospital’s past, her godmother was sterilized by California’s now-repealed Eugenics Law.
Alcaraz said, “She was always extra near to me.” “I didn’t realize it until much later that she wanted more children but didn’t have the opportunity.”
The hospital’s dominance on the Eastside, and its service to the low-income residents, has made an emotional connection to many of those who have since achieved prominence.
Betty Avila is the executive director of Boyle Heights’ Self Help Graphics & Art. She was thereafter breaking her arm while a fourth-grader at Highland Park’s Buchanan Street Elementary school.
Avila stated, “I received my cast there and met all of my appointments there.” “The General Hospital has been a place for physical healing.”
The city’s largest building, which was funded by a 1923 bond sale, was completed in 1932. It opened in the following year with a lofty mission written in stone at its entrance. “To provide care to the acutely ill or suffering to whom the doctors and attending staff offer their services free of charge so that no citizen of this county is deprived of life or health because of lack of such care and assistance.”
General Hospital has been there for the city’s poor over the years.
“One day, I saw a homeless man who had been assaulted being treated with the same respect as a CEO who suffered a heart attack in Dodger Stadium as they lay on adjacent gurneys within our ER — I realized just how special a hospital General Hospital was and how privileged it was to be a part it was,” Dr. Marc Eckstein wrote about his time there in a 2008 article in The Times regarding the hospital’s closing.
He wrote, “Despite the decaying physical plant, lack of central air conditioning and bloodstains on the hospital gurneys, the graffiti on the walls of the bathroom, the care given to our patients has surpassed any private hospital in the town.”
The hospital’s history is, however, muddled like the city.
Its predecessor, a nearby historical building, is currently occupied by Los Angeles County Coroner. This was also where Marilyn Monroe was born. In the late 1920s, police notoriously committed the mother of a missing child to psychiatric evaluation after she, rightly, claimed that the boy they “recovered”, was not hers.
The building was the scene of protests by Chicano groups in the 1970s over questionable sterilization.
The Board of Supervisors officially apologized for the sterilizations in 2018. It stated that they occurred between 1968 and 1974 as a way to control the growth of “undesirable” populations like immigrants, people of color, unmarried mothers, and people with disabilities.
California created a restitution account for survivors of the approximately 20,000 women who were sterilized in violation of the 1909 state eugenics laws. However, the County-USC women who were sterilized there are not eligible as the hospital is locally funded. In 1979, the state law was abolished.
Although the county didn’t have a program for forced sterilizations, supervisors stated that it was questionable whether consent was given because of cultural and language barriers. Some didn’t realize they were being sterilized until much later.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl stated that the practice left women without full reproductive freedom for the rest of their lives, a devastating loss for their families and themselves.
In August, a memorial to their story was placed in a nearby garden.
In 1989, the building was again the scene of protests when Los Angeles ACT UP/LA held a week-long vigil there. It included a soup kitchen and demanded a dedicated AIDS unit. The county later opened a 20-bed unit after the protest reached the Board of Supervisors’ meeting room.
Even so, the demise of the county’s flagship hospital was predicted.
The facility struggled to keep up with new medical technology from the 1960s. It was without air conditioning or fire sprinklers so it could not meet stricter fire safety standards.
The county tried twice to replace it, once in 1963 and another time in 1975, but was unable to secure the funding.
In 1990, the supervisors voted to start construction of a new replacement. The state had agreed to pay 40% of the costs proportionately to the number of Medi-Cal patients that the hospital serves. This plan did not improve the hospital’s standing in the community. hundreds were forced to leave the area for the new Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.
The Northridge earthquake of January 17, 1994, caused the permanent closing of a 162-bed psychiatric unit. It also led to new seismic standards for hospitals, which would require structural upgrades to the huge building.
General Hospital was closed on November 7, 2008, after the completion of the County-USC Medical Center.
It has remained a community asset to a limited degree, with its Art Deco vestibule still accessible to the public. It is home to a wellness center, which occupies a large portion of the first floor. Several research teams and training programs also use the space on the fourth floor. The remaining 19 floors were abandoned, and are now in a state with dangling ceiling tiles and broken light bulbs. They also have peeling paint and rusted pipes.
The question of what to do with this space, like the smell of decay, has been hanging in the air since then.
Villalobos, an architect, stated that he originally thought about converting at most a portion of the general hospital into housing after Gloria Molina, then-supervisor, released a report that estimated that 19,000 Eastside residents had lost their housing due to freeway displacement.
His family was also among them. Villalobos was an eighth grader at St. Isabel School. In 1961, Villalobos and his family were forced from their four-bedroom house near Boyle Heights’ intersection of Atlantic and South Fresno streets.
Villalobos, who is 76, said that “it was a beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood with a great view and right next to a park.”
Bulldozing the home resulted in the property being placed under the Pomona Freeway. This is a tributary to the massive 27-lane East Los Angeles Interchange, which cuts up the Eastside. The school was demolished, and the site was rebuilt further down.
he founded Barrio Planners in 1970 with four of his friends. This non-profit design company combines political activism and community involvement. They also helped to expand the light rail Gold Line through Eastside.
Molina visited the hospital shortly after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
He told her, “If you truly want to help people evicted decades back and those currently undergoing evictions now, then start with quality construction and housing.”
The talk was abandoned for years, but the county’s health department had a similar idea.
“There were always discussions about that, but nothing was feasible,” stated Mark Ghaly at the time, who was a deputy director in that department. These ideas take weeks or months to percolate. It takes time, for better and worse.
Housing for Health was launched by the county in 2012. This program provides housing and services for medically vulnerable homeless persons.
Ghaly is now the secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency. He created a blueprint for General Hospital to be used as housing, surrounded by all the health, mental, and addiction services Housing for Health clients need.
He said, “If you could turn that space into a place for vulnerable people to live and thrive it does exactly what Housing for Health wanted, transform people’s life.”
In a 2018 motion, Hilda Solis (the successor to Molina) supported the idea and called for a feasibility report on converting the hospital into housing. She stated that the reborn building should be able to complement existing health services and provide support for the most vulnerable populations by providing housing, employment, and other services.
The county hired AECOM to conduct market studies and assess the building’s structural integrity.
Drawing support from a community that is proud of its heritage is a critical component of feasibility.
Solis established the Health Innovation Community Partnership oversight group. This group gathered leaders from nonprofits and businesses, as well as residents’ associations, from El Sereno up to downtown, to examine the plans.
Neighborhood feedback was gathered at more than 75 community engagement meetings. Stakeholder interviews, pop-up events, and community meetings were all part of the program. Community engagement volunteers met with over 100 people at each event, including at the East Los Angeles Skills Center (City Terrace Park Community Center), Hollenbeck Middle School, and City Terrace Park Community Center.
Villalobos was one of them. He has opposed plans that he considers out of step with Boyle Heights. These include the construction of a state prison in east Los Angeles. A proposal to shelter up to 10,000 homeless in the abandoned Sears Tower.
He said that such projects are often a failure in New York and Chicago because they pile on top of one another.
He believes that the General Hospital’s smaller, but the better-targeted approach to treatment is a winner.
He said, “This vision is fantastic.”
Others brought their own feelings of joy and pain to the discussion.
Alcaraz, who was a former president and representative of the Highland Park Neighborhood Council, attended dozens of meetings and encouraged the members of the unhoused to speak up. They requested housing and job opportunities, as well as a mental and physical health aid.
She has been a homeless advocate since 2013.
Alcaraz stated that there was a good turnout from individuals and families with lower incomes and unhoused people. “They are part and parcel of this community. It’s our ultimate goal that we help them get out of their current situation.”
Avila stated that the plan to convert a part of General Hospital into affordable housing seemed reasonable considering the high price for such homes.
The artist also valued the chance to restore the hospital’s image following the forced sterilizations.
She said that the trauma suffered by Latinos in these institutions was unwelcoming and dangerous. “I am happy to be part in a healing space. Perhaps we can put a supermarket here.
Avila, who is also a member of the steering committee, said that she hopes there will be space for “art and culture” when the plans are expanded.
She said, “We have so many cultures on the Eastside. That should be included in the new plans.”
The partnership will discuss issues such as adapting the hospital’s unique features (open bays, operating rooms and a library) to community use, and how housing will be created for the wards. The size of the units will be a key decision. A feasibility study showed that there was potential for 750 units that could be used for homeless people. The community group favors two- and three-bedroom family homes, which would reduce the total.
In a request for proposals, the county and community groups will discuss their goals. This is expected to be available in January. Next, the selected developer will discuss the details with the county. The final plan will be determined by unknown factors such as funding availability and developer imagination.
Lehrer, the architect said that “Imagine going down a long hallway.” “You might occasionally blow out two or more rooms. The hallway suddenly becomes a collection of social spaces with light and views.
The West Campus, which is part of the proposed development, is, however, a blank canvas. 12 acres are also available, which includes bungalow offices and a windowless finance facility, asphalt parking, and a parking structure. It is also up for grabs what to do about an important aboveground tunnel that links the former hospital and a functioning pharmacy building. Community groups have high priorities: More housing, public spaces, and cultural events.
The final decision will be between the county, and the selected developer, provided they comply with Solis’ conditions of relevance to community health.
The county will develop the Restorative Care Village independently. This multi-phase project fills some of the critical gaps in housing and treatment for mental and medical patients.
Phase 1 was inaugurated on July 6. It featured a four-story, 24-bed recovery care center. County-USC Medical Center allows homeless patients to stay for up to three months, while they complete their rehabilitation.
Sixty-four residential mental health beds were also completed. This was an alternative to general shelter for patients who have left a psychiatric ER.
The former Women’s and Children’s Hospital is now an empty lot. It will be used for 64 additional beds in mental health care, job development, and possible additional medical recovery and mental healthcare urgent care.
Century Housing and the supervisors reached an exclusive agreement last month to create 300 units of affordable and homeless housing on the former site of a laboratory in the northwest corner.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, a film mogul, has noticed the ambition of the hospital project, Restorative Care Village, and West Campus. He has been lobbying state officials to fund mental and health facilities.
Katzenberg views the project as a national model of integration of housing, healthcare, and workplace development.
Katzenberg stated, “What’s so wonderful about this facility? It’s an opportunity for you to integrate all of this into one location where it’s possible to really move people, hopefully from the streets through their health issues into housing.”
“That’s got all the scale to allow this to happen.”‘