Getting Schooled at the Los Angeles State Normal School, ca. 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The term “normal school” has long been disused, but, in the late 19th century boom in education, during which more children were educated at our region’s elementary and high schools and, in a growing numbers, at local colleges and universities, the importance of teacher training led to the creation of the Los Angeles State Normal School, which opened in 1883.

California’s first normal school was opened in San Francisco, first as a private institution in 1857 and then, five years later, as a state-run one called the California State Normal School.  In 1871, the campus was relocated to San Jose and is now San Jose State University.

As Los Angeles and its environs grew along with southern California’s population, a branch of the state normal school was built on a hill above what was then called Central Park (now Pershing Square) in a city block between Fifth and Sixth streets and between Grand Avenue and Flower Streets.

As an 1894 report stated, the facility

is finely located, almost in the center of the city, at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Fifth Street, on an elevation of 50 feet above the business part of the town.  The grounds cover five acres, beautifully laid out and improved with drives, walks and shrubbery.  A magnificent view of the city and surrounding country may be obtained from the east entrance to the school, or from any one of the several towers that grace the building.  The eye wanders from the beautiful city, situated on its hundred hills, to green fields and orange groves that shade into the distance, while, keeping guard over all, is the grand mountain wall on the north, with its summit covered by snow during many months of the year.

For the 1894-95, a new three-story addition, measuring 80′ x 180′ in extent had been completed and was described as “one of the most noticeable and attractive architectural features of Los Angeles.”

The school year lasted from early September through late June and the emphasis was on instructing potential teachers on “the science and art of education.”  In addition to the academic subjects covered, there was a substantial amount of effort devoted to the psychology of a student’s future charges, whatever the grade level; in the history and philosophy of education; the state’s School Law; and the principles of the organization and government of schools, among others.

This circa late 1890s cabinet card photograph from the Homestead’s collection of the Los Angeles State Normal School shows the beautiful buildings and grounds of the facility at its east entrance off Grand Avenue, with Fifth Street to the right. The campus opened in 1883 and was recast in 1919 as part of the new “Southern Branch” of the University of California, now U.C.L.A.  The site was redeveloped into the Los Angeles Central Public Library, which opened in 1926.

A gymnasium and library were part of the physical plant and students had the opportunity to join literary societies and student associations, read the school journal, and take part in other activities and affiliations.

Tuition was free, reflecting the commitment the state put into educating its future teachers, with textbooks costing an average of $4 per term and instructional materials totaling “from $10 to $20 during the four years.”  Boarding alone or with private families entailed expenses of $3-5 a week.

The student body size grew impressively, from 22 graduates in 1884 to 70 a decade later, and was, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly female.  Only nine of the 1894 graduates were men.  For the 1894-95 year, there were just over 250 students.

Of the senior class that year, the best known was Mary E. Foy, the daughter of an early Los Angeles saddler, who at age 18 in 1880 became the third (and first woman) Los Angeles city librarian.  She was in her thirties when she graduated from the normal school and became an elementary and then a  high school teacher.

Foy was active in the suffrage movement and was active in women’s clubs in Los Angeles.  She served as a delegate to the Democratic National Committee during the 1920s and lived until nearly her 100th birthday, dying in 1962.  The Foy family home, built in 1872 and moved twice, still stands as a city historic landmark in Angelino Heights.

As to the school, it continued to operate until 1919 when the state legislature approved an act to merge it with a new “Southern Branch” of the University of California, now U.C.L.A.  The buildings stood until the mid-1920s, when the Los Angeles Central Public Library was built on the site and remains there today, ninety years later.

Check back for more entries on greater Los Angeles education in the “Getting Schooled” series.

3 thoughts

  1. Hello Alice, yes, Pierce (1851-1919), who taught in Sierra Madre and Pasadena in the early to late 1880s and ran the Chico normal school branch (now Cal State Chico) from 1889-1893, took over at the LA branch and was in charge until 1904. He retired to a ranch in the Pasadena area and taught citizenship to foreign-born students in LA schools for a year before poor health worsened.

Leave a Reply