California Hospital: 125 Years in the Heart of Los Angeles

California Hospital Anniversary LogoThis year marks California Hospital Medical Center’s (CHMC) 125th year of caring for the health of Los Angeles.  It’s seen the early frontier pioneering days of the city, the boom in population and business in the first part of the 20th century, two world wars, status as a celebrity hospital serving Hollywood stars, and the advent of high-tech medicine.  Today, the striking red-tiled high-rise hospital supports great diversity and an underserved urban population from its location at the intersection of Venice Boulevard and Grand Avenue.

California Hospital was founded in 1887 in a small and unpretentious two-story brick building on 6th Street in Los Angeles (population 80,000 at that time) by Dr. Walter Lindley, an enterprising young man born in Indiana.  Shortly thereafter he gathered together 21 fellow physicians, who each chipped in $1,000 to buy a plot of land on South Hope Street, where they built the first physician-owned hospital in the U.S.  It opened for business at 1414 South Hope in 1898, and was an attractive four-story wood-framed structure with gables, corner cupolas, awnings over the windows and a large well-landscaped garden facing 15th Street.  It had 30 beds.  The campus rapidly added three more buildings to house patients and facilities, employing the British-born architect John C. Austin, who also designed Griffith Observatory and many other iconic L.A. buildings.

A school of nursing, the California Hospital Training School for Nurses, was opened in 1898, and graduated its first class of four the next year.  The nursing school closed in 1984, but California Hospital still has grads and an instructor working in the hospital.  A brick apartment building now called the Villa Metropolitano, two doors north of California Hospital’s Emergency Department entrance on Hope Street, was originally the Metropolitan Hotel.  It was bought by the hospital in 1944 to house an increased number of nurses caused by the needs of World War II, and was called Moore Hall.

Building on 315 West 36th StreetIn 1916 an enterprising group of staunch Lutherans of Scandinavian heritage from the American Midwest formed the Lutheran Hospital Society of Southern California, with the express purpose of “establishing hospitals, dispensaries and clinics.”  The Society bought California Hospital in 1921, and successfully operated it and several other L.A. and San Diego hospitals for the next 70 years.

The turn of the century brick and wood buildings proved inadequate for “modern” healthcare, and in 1926 a new nine-story brick hospital was inaugurated at 1414 South Hope Street on the site of the old buildings.  It was deemed to be the most progressive medical building in the country at that time.  It served Los Angeles well until the Northridge Earthquake of 1994 damaged it to the extent that patients could no longer be housed there, and it was demolished in 2000.  Meanwhile the current patient tower at 1401 South Grand Avenue was opened in 1987 – Tibbitts Tower, named after a much-respected hospital administrator, Samuel J. Tibbitts.

Total bed capacity at California Hospital is currently 319.  There are 65,000 emergency room visits every year, 2,200 of which are trauma patients.  About 360-400 babies a month come into this world at the hospital.  The hospital’s new Los Angeles Center for Women’s Health opened in February of this year.  Also new are extensive remodeling and upgrades to the 1414 South Hope Street Emergency Department, now underway.

California Hospital in 1898Snippets from their history:

  • In 1910 California Hospital was put in charge of setting up the first-ever emergency aviation hospital – a portable cottage equipped with an operating table – at the country’s first air meet, the Dominguez International Air Meet, at Dominquez Field south of Compton.  A horse-drawn carriage “ambulance” stood outside.
  • The first X-rays taken in Los Angeles were performed at California Hospital in 1889 by Dr. Albert Soiland with equipment he built himself at home.  He was the founder of the Department of Radiology at USC’s School of Medicine.
  • Dec. 24, 1914:  Internationally known and respected naturalist John Muir, aged 76, died of pneumonia at California Hospital.
  • In 1917 thirty grads from the California Hospital Training School for Nurses joined the first World War I overseas nursing unit, the Naval Base Hospital Unit No. 3.
  • In 1928 the cost of three days’ stay with dressings, pharmacy and extra diet charges was $16.45.
  • In 1932 California Hospital served as the official Olympic Games Hospital when Los Angeles hosted the games.
  • A nine-story brick building belonging to California Hospital can still be found at 1401 South Hope St., and is now Esperanza Community Housing.  It was completed in 1957 and was home to many doctors’ and dentists’ offices at that time.
  • The first baby at California Hospital was born July 24, 1898.  Baby number 20,000 was born March 5, 1937; number 35,000 was little Michael Rawley on November 24, 1945; number 50,000 was Kathryn Eloise Thompson on December 12, 1950.  Labor and delivery continues to be a vibrant part of hospital activities.
  • In 1944 the hospital attracted world-wide attention for its “Fathers’ Room,” equipped with a loudspeaker so dads could hear the first cries of their newborns.  In 1956 the First Voice of Junior! program was inaugurated.  Babies’ first cries were broadcast and recorded in the delivery room and sent to the fathers’ waiting room.  A phonograph record of the event was presented to the happy parents when leaving the hospital.
  • PacifiCare health insurance was founded at California Hospital by its then-owner, the LHS (Lutheran Hospital Society) Corp.

For more information about California Hospital’s history or to arrange a visit to their archives, please visit http://www.supportcaliforniahospital.org or email susan.shum@dignityhealth.org.

Thanks to Judith Thompson, volunteer and former CHMC Medical Librarian, for preparing this information.

  1. Michael B. Gordon’s avatar

    In 1961 I was fresh out of high school and went from a MWD camp on the Colorado River to Los Angeles to stay with my grandmother. I applied for a job at the Calif. hospital as a messenger. I later moved up to the pharmacy as a clerk and then to the cashiers office as a clerk ( I have forgotten the title of the job). I met my wife there (student in X-Ray technology)l I left in October 1965 to join the Marine Corps.
    The Administrator at the time was Samuel Tibbitts, and Ass’t Administrator’s last name was Carlson. The head of the business office was William Wheaton. The head cashier was Dorothy Cunningham (not positive about the last name). The head X-ray technician was Joan Sherwood. I have often looked back on those days with fondness.

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