Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Occidental College: Born in Boyle Heights!

As Los Angeles experienced its first large-scale development boom, known as the "Boom of the Eighties", between 1886 and 1888, Boyle Heights was part of the hysteria. Though founded by William H. Workman, Isaias W. Hellman and John Lazzarovich in 1875, the community stagnated for a decade following the collapse of the city's first growth spurt during the first half of the Seventies. The economic downturn from 1876 and afterward was hastened by the collapse of the bank co-owned by Workman's uncle and namesake, San Gabriel Valley rancher William Workman, and Workman's son-in-law, F. P. F. Temple.

The completion of the Santa Fe Railroad line to Los Angeles in 1885 was a major factor in unleashing the "Boom of the Eighties." As new residents poured into the city, Boyle Heights experienced an explosion of the construction of residences, commercial structures and even an institution of higher learning.

On 20 April 1887, a group of clery and laypersons from the city's Presbyterian population received its articles of incorporation from the State of California for "The Occidental University of Los Angeles, California." The site chosen for the school was at the southern end of what was then considered part of Boyle Heights off Rowan Street (named, incidentally, for banker, county treasurer, county supervisor and Los Angeles mayor Thomas E. Rowan), but which later became part of East Los Angeles, a name formerly applied to Lincoln Heights. On 20 September, the cornerstone was laid for the sole college structure and construction commenced.

A year later, in October 1888, instruction began for the first crop of Oxy students, composed of twenty-seven men and thirteen women, who paid $50 tuition per year. Five years later, the college celebrated the matriculation of its first graduates: Maud E. Bell and Martha J. Thompson. Another landmark occurred in 1895 when Oxy played its first football game against arch-rival Pomona College, a contest won by the Tigers, 16-0.

By then, however, the development boom turned into a spectacular bust. Los Angeles not only receded into recession, it followed the rest of the United States into an extended depression for most of the 1890s. Locally, the misery was compounded by a devastating series of droughts during the decade.

Finally, the college experienced its own major disaster. On 13 January 1896, a fire destroyed the sole structure at the institution, which then moved temporarily to 7th and Hill streets in downtown Los Angeles. A new campus was built and occupied in 1898 at Highland Park. The photo above, courtesy of the Workman and Temple Family Homestad Museum, was taken in March 1900 at the site on Pasadena Avenue (now Figueroa Street) near Avenues 51 and 52. After over a decade there, another move was made, this time to Eagle Rock, where the current campus was situated in 1912.

As for the Boyle Heights (now East Los Angeles) location, it later became, in 1912, Rowan Avenue Elementary School at 600 S. Rowan Avenue, a short distance south of the Pomona Freeway (SR60). Next year, the school will celebrate its centennial. Meanwhile, there is a plaque commemorating the site as the first location of Occidental College.

Contribution by Paul R. Spitzzeri, Collections Manager, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum.


  1. I believe I heard or read that the College relocated to Eagle Rock and out of Highland Park due to the nuisance (that is, smoke) from the trains that rolled past just west of the campus.

  2. Awesome shit. Thanks for the history lesson.

  3. I graduated from Oxy and didn't know it was part of Boyle Heights at one point. Coincidentally I was raised in Boyle Heights. I guess it was meant to be!

  4. Hi anonymous, thanks for the comment and glad you made that connection between where you grew up and where you went to school!

  5. I grew up on Rowan Avenue, one block south of the elementery school. I always wondered what the area was like before our house was built in 1911. It was called Hodge street when Occidental

  6. Hi AMD, thanks for your comment, though it looks like it was cut off. Would you want to resend? We appreciate your interest in the blog.

  7. The problem, my esteemed colleagues, is that 600 S. Rowan Ave. is not Boyle Heights. It is east of Indiana and therefore in East L.A. This needs to be clarified.

  8. Hi Abel, thanks for the comment. The reason why it was said that the college started in Boyle Heights is because, in 1887, that's what the area was called. For example, when the cornerstone was laid in September of that year, the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Herald newspapers both identified the location as Boyle Heights. East Los Angeles, established in 1873, was what later was renamed Lincoln Heights. When the area east of Indiana Avenue, the eastern boundary of the limits of the City of Los Angeles, was developed, the name East Los Angeles was repurposed for that unincorporated Los Angeles County area. The post has been edited in two places to note the later change in names, so thanks again for the comment!