Getting Schooled With Photos from Occidental College, Los Angeles, February 1900

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As literacy rates skyrocketed in the 19th century, one of the elements of the rapid growth in education in greater Los Angeles in the last couple of decades was the rise of colleges and universities in the region. The Roman Catholic institution of St. Vincent’s College, which opened in 1865, educated boys and young men from grammar school to college ages. After a failed attempt by Methodists to establish Wilson College, named for Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to Los Angeles with the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841, at Wilmington in the 1870s, the University of Southern California was successfully launched in 1880.

Three years later, the brothers George and William Chaffey established their namesake college, now in Rancho Cucamonga. In April 1887, during the great Boom of the Eighties, Presbyterians created Occidental University, soon re-designated as a college, and the cornerstone was dedicated that September (the Congregationalists soon followed with Pomona College, now in Claremont). The college opened its doors in October 1888 on a site that was called Boyle Heights because that was the nearest community to the locale, but it was actually outside Los Angeles city limits on Rowan Avenue in what became East Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Herald, 9 October 1888.

Among its trustees were Lyman Stewart of Union Oil Company, which later grew to become a major firm in California’s burgeoning oil industry, Thomas Bard, a Union associate and who took office as a United States Senator on 7 February 1900, about when the photos featured here were taken, and James F. Crank, a Los Angeles streetcar promoter.

The Los Angeles Herald of 9 October 1888 hailed the opening, noting that “its main object will be to give the youth who enter it a moral and religious training and a complete and general classical education, fitting them either for the ministry or for the higher walks of secular life.” For those young men pursing the former, they were to be prepared for continuing their studies at a San Francisco theological seminary.

Occidental College faculty, including President Guy W. Wadsworth, standing second from right, February 1900.

There were forty students who began taking classes that first semester and, in 1893, the graduates from the English department of the school were Pasadena resident Martha J. Thompson and Boyle Heights’ Maud E. Bell, whose father, James, was a founding trustee (his wife was a niece of John and Elizabeth Hollenbeck, prominent early Boyle Heights residents and owners of a large swath of Rancho La Puente where Covina and West Covina are now.) Maud’s brother, Alphonzo, an 1895 graduate of Occidental, became a prominent oil and real estate capitalist in the region. Professor Robert French was also granted a bachelor of science degree.

On 13 January 1896, a fire broken out in the lone campus building with a defective chimney flue setting the blaze in the attic and the conflagration spread rapidly. When finally extinguished, the fire destroyed everything but the four walls and the chimney, with it reported that less than half of the $30,000 loss covered by insurance. For the remainder of the school year, classes were held in the Boyle Heights Presbyterian Church, whose pastor, the Rev. William S. Young, was a founder of the college.

Chemistry students in front of the wood-frame lab, February 1900.

While there were reports that a new college site might be found in Glendale, Inglewood and near Pasadena, Highland Park, in the northeastern part of Los Angeles, was the focus of trustees. Meanwhile, for the 1896-1897 school year, part of the former St. Vincent’s College campus at Hill and 6th street, close to Central or Sixth Street Park, now Pershing Square, was leased. Work continued on the purchase of the Highland Park site and the construction of the new college building.

The Los Angeles Herald of 14 September 1898 covered the opening of recently completed structure and the beginning of classes at the new Occidental. It noted that, after guests toured the main building, they decamped to the assembly hall for speeches and music, but the paper also provided a short history of the institution to date, observing:

Occidental is the only Presbyterian college in Southern California, and has had a struggle for life. In its inception it had the experience of new educational institutions, which is a tug up-hill, encountering downhill forces. When it had almost struggled to its feet fire broke out and entirely consumed the building. It was a question for some time with the presbytery whether the burden of rebuilding and attempting to sustain a school should be undertaken.

The trustees, however, persisted and it was noted that there were about one hundred students who matriculated at the new college locale. As for the first several weeks of the final year of the 19th century (remember 1900 was not the first year of the 20th!), it is notable that advertising for Occidental was among such institutions as the Los Angeles School of Dramatic Art, the Girls’ Collegiate School and the Eton School for Boys.

Herald, 14 January 1896.

The Los Angeles Record of 2 January noted the return of scholars to campus after the winter break and reported that Dr. A.J. Frost lectured students on “Fourteen Fatal Gaps in the Theory of Evolution,” while elocution teacher, Miss Leonard, “will give a few selections and the members of the school will sing.”

Just under a week later, it was announced that a track meet between USC and Pomona College was cancelled because of a dispute between the two schools over the former allowing any student from whatever school to participate, but it was also noted that, prior to 1898 when USC left, there was a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which involved the two institutions along with Chaffey and Occidental.

Oxy’s chemistry lab, February 1900.

Sports news continued with the brief note on the 11th, in an article also observing that an Occidental trustee election was held, that the school football team was practicing for its final gridiron contest of the season against the Los Angeles High School squad. On the 13th, the game, which took place at the Highland Park campus, ended with the Romans shutting out Oxy 11-0. The high school team’s left halfback, identified only as Stephens, scored both touchdowns, including a 50-yard ramble for the second score—though what’s strange is that each race into the end zone counted for only five points!

On the 20th, the Occidental women’s basketball team played a Saturday morning contest outdoors against the Pasadena High School girls’ squad. Although nothing was located as to outcome, it is notable that Pasadena’s five players included the Sutton sisters, Florence, May and Violet. The siblings, who led their team to an undefeated season, were even bigger tennis players, along with their sister Ethel.

Students and, at the top, staff, on the broad steps of the main campus building, February 1900

The eldest, Ethel once said that she and brother Henry hauled clay from Eaton Canyon above the Crown City to make their own home court, though the girls first learned the game in their native England. Over many years, the Southern California women’s tennis championship was jokingly called the “Sutton California championships” as the four young women captured the crown eighteen times and, as talented as Ethel, Florence and Violet were, the youngest, May, was a true powerhouse, taking half those titles herself.

May Sutton then, at just 16, won the national championship and followed that by winning the Wimbledon women’s singles title in 1905 and 1907. She was the queen of the Tournament of Roses in 1908 and largely retired after marrying three-time U.S. Championship doubles title holder Thomas Bundy.

An architectural rendering of the new Highland Park campus structure, Herald, 4 January 1898.

She made a professional comeback in the 1920s while in her mid-thirties and older and reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1929 at 42 while reaching the semis at the French Open. May and Violet had descendants who were tennis stars, as well, and May was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1956.

Also of note in the opening weeks of 1900 was that Occidental’s debate team was preparing for an oratorical contest against its rivals from Claremont, Pomona and USC, to be held in Claremont in May and one of the photos, from May, in the batch from the Museum’s holdings from which the samples here were taken is of the debating club.

The main Occidental building, March 1900.

Because the Boer War between the British and the Boers, the descendants of Dutch settlers in South Africa, was capturing so much attention at the time, Rev. Henry A. Newell lectured on 19 January to Oxy’s student body on the Boers, while, on 1 February, the college’s president, Guy W. Wadsworth spoke on the conflict to the elite California Club.

An informal discussion, featuring commentary from Dr. Joseph Kurtz (a noted physician of longstanding in Los Angeles) and journalist and author William A. Spalding, followed and it was reported that a vote of those present “was about evenly divided on the question of pro-Boer or pro-English.”

Students labeled under the title of “Q.A.M.,” May 1900.

Another interesting item came in the 31 January edition of the Los Angeles Times when it was reported that restaurateur Frank A. Francis applied for a liquor license at the well-known Sycamore Grove, long a popular pleasure ground along the banks of the Arroyo Seco near the campus and now a city park. The paper observed that “a number of citizens interested in the welfare of Occidental College” protested the application.

While Francis claimed he would adhere strictly to the law, a police department investigator found that it was unlikely there would be much of a clientele for a “bona fide restaurant” and that Francis ran his place “in a disreputable manner, and [it had] been the rendezvous of lawless and dissolute people.”

Los Angeles Times, 14 January 1900.

Moreover, there had been “numerous complaints of drunkenness, fights and other disturbances of the peace about the grove” to the department and locals were “disturbed by the low class of people who frequented the place” as they had easy access by streetcar. Some 150 people signed the petition and a representative of the Rumpp estate, which opened the first business there a quarter century prior, elected to withdraw the petition.

With respect to the photos, they include views of the main campus building with very little around it but bare land and hills; a wood-frame chemistry laboratory, removed from the larger structure for obvious reasons; faculty members, including President Wadsworth; students at the lab; members of a group only identified as “Q.A.M.” (does anyone know what that stands for and wants to leave a comment?); the aforementioned debating club; and what appears to be the entire student body, including, seated at the lower right, the lone Asian student, and standing between the columns at the top faculty or other staff.

The Oxy Debating Club, May 1900.

We are fortunate to have, in the Homestead’s holdings, these early images of an institution of higher learning that, despite its early struggles, persevered and, after ending its Presbyterian affiliation in 1910, moved four years later to Eagle Rock, where the current campus (which counts among its prominent alumni, the football star and politician Jack Kemp, actor Ben Affleck, and former President Barack Obama) now has just under 2,000 students.

Look for more “Getting Schooled” posts on this blog relating to education in greater Los Angeles, including as we get to the end of the current school year and feature yearbooks and other great objects from the Museum’s collection.

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