by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A couple of artifacts from the Homestead’s collection are now on display at the newest exhibit at LA Plaza Cultura y Artes, 18th and Grand: The Olympic Auditorium, which looks at the eight decade history of the venue, completed in 1925, that was renowned for its hosting of boxing, music, roller derby, wrestling and more until its final closure in 2005 (the structure now houses a Korean Christian Church). In fact, this Sunday is the opening celebration of the exhibit, which will close next May.
Prior to the building of the Olympic, however, the site was the athletic field (appropriately) of the third site of St. Vincent’s College, a Roman Catholic educational institution established in 1865 and the successor of which is now Loyola Marymount University. Established by the Vincentian fathers of the order of St. Vincent de Paul as the “St. Vincent Select School for Boys” at the request of Bishop Thaddeus Amat (who, eight years earlier, blessed the cornerstone of St. Nicholas’ Chapel in El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Homestead), the school was originally for primary and grammar age students. It should be noted that this was only about a dozen years after the first public school was opened in town at a time when American education was making rapid strides, but still had some ways to go before universal education and near-total literacy were achieved.
As an early advertisement from the 5 August 1865 edition of the Los Angeles News stated, the school opened in the adobe house built by Vicente Lugo, of the prominent Californio family, on the east side of the Plaza, directly opposite the Plaza Church. The adobe later became part of the city’s Chinatown on the extension of North Los Angeles Street and just north of Ferguson Alley, the latter of which was recently profiled in a multi-part post here. With the imminent construction of U.S. 101 and “urban renewal” underway in Los Angeles, the structure was razed in 1951.
The Vincentians, however, contemplated establishing a college at the time it opened the school and, as part of its future plans, the order was given a lot by nursery owner and real estate investor Ozro W. Childs, who has also been featured here previously, in a remote part of the town to the southeast, where a second park site was laid out in expectation of future development. The new location was on 6th Street between Hill and Fort (renamed Broadway in 1890) streets and the enlarged school opened there in 1867.
The News of 2 April 1867 provided a detailed description of the institution, averring that “there is certainly no portion of the State of California which presents so many advantages as does the county of Los Angeles for the culture of both the mental and physical energies of the young men of our country.” The paper added that “we have every reason to believe that in a very short time St. Vincent’s College will be filled with students from abroad to its utmost capacity” and that it would be where young men “can be elegantly educated whilst their physical energies are being fully developed.”
Led by principal Rev. James Magill, the school boasted a faculty of which “we assert that no more accomplished scholars and gentlemen can be found in any institution in or out of the State of California” and, under Magill’s oversight, “parents need have no fears for the welfare of those placed under his protecting care.” The News went on to say that “we must not omit to congratulate our own citizens that we have at last in our midst such advantages for the education of our rising generation, as is here afforded to us.”
Noting that the new campus was complete and ready for visits and inspections, the paper noted “the superior qualities of the building, solid, spacious and well-ventilated, the grounds extensive and planted with beautiful shade and ornamental trees, [and] a full gymnastic apparatus” for those students “who come respectably recommended.” These charges were subject to regulation and rules “which though strict, are nevertheless mild and parental.”
The curriculum included subjects such as arithmetic, English and classical literature, ancient and modern languages and a commercial department “to prepare young men for every branch of business” was to command “special care.” Board, lodging and tuition was $250 for the ten-month academic year, from September to June, paid semi-annually with $30 extra for those who stayed at the campus during the summer break, while there were quarterly rates of $12 to $18 for day scholars, as well.
By 1871, there was not only a commencement ceremony, but a collegiate dramatic theatrical, both held at the recently completed Merced Theater, adjacent to the Pico House hotel and just south of the Plaza. Sports became a gradually important part of the extracurricular activities at St. Vincent’s, hearkening to that need for physical training as well as mental, with such early examples as baseball games, such as a 24 October 1869 contest against the Excelsior club of Los Angeles that the St. Vincent squad won on its home turf, 37-23 (let’s just say that the art of pitching was not as well developed at the time!). That August, the institution was incorporated with the state so that it could own its property, as well chartered, so that it could confer degrees.
As far-flung as the campus was, including its position cater-corner to a largely neglected park, sometimes called Central, Sixth Street, and even St. Vincent’s, but which later became Pershing Square, there were major changes with residential and early commercial development in that section of town by the early 1880s. Despite a major remodeling recently undertaken, it was decided to move further afield and a site was purchased at the northwest corner of Washington Street and Grand Avenue at the southern limits of the city.
Just as a direct transcontinental railroad connection was made by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe to Los Angeles at the end of 1885 and the great Boom of the Eighties was ushered in, with its peak during the 1887-1888 administration of Mayor William H. Workman (nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste). In fact, the new campus, with its sister church built temporarily of wood, was opened just after Workman took office, with the Los Angeles Herald of 23 January 1887 reporting that
On the corner of Grand avenue and Washington street, in the [south-]western part of the city, rise the symmetrical towers of two buildings, which attract very general attention. These are the new St. Vincent’s church and the college of the same name, on the same piece of ground. The church has been opened some time, and now the college building is to be thrown open for the benefit of the rising generation, who in large numbers will avail itself of an opportunity to gain a finished education within the walls of this excellent institution.
“The grand pile of buildings,” however were to be augmented by two additional structures when the time came for providing room for that expanded student body. It was recorded that the school faced along Grand with more than 250 feet of frontage, while there was 128 feet running westerly along Washington. The three-story edifice was described as being of “English collegiate Gothic” architecture, with solid, thick walls with the main interior of these rising to the roof. Moreover, said the Herald, “the ceilings are lofty, the rooms large, and the halls spacious,” and, because of the number of boarding students, particular attention was paid to ventilation and sewerage conditions.
The ground level contained the chemistry and physics classrooms and laboratories, the dining areas, apartments for domestic and culinary staff and the student recreation hall. The second and main floor housed parlors, the apartments for the president and the treasurer, rooms for classes and recitation and an assembly and study space with a 200-person capacity. Reached by two sets of stairs, the third level included the library, rooms for the faculty, bathrooms and two dormitories, one each for younger and older students. A 110-foot high tower at the front was intended to house a clock for the campus and surrounding neighborhood and the “Angelus bell” was to ring at 5:30 a.m., Noon and 7:30 p.m.
As for the campus, there were five acres that were to “mainly be devoted to recreation, athletic sports, lawn tennis, etc.” and this was at the north end of the property toward 18th Street. Access was provided by streetcars, including the horse-drawn Main Street and Agricultural [Exposition] Park Railway and a planned cable line that was the next technological advancement until electric rail was introduced within several years.
The Herald also observed that
The location cannot be surpassed. It is in the heart of the city, but in a neighborhood noted for the refinement and elegance of its homes. There is an abundance of water for all purposes, and the air is fresh from the ocean, pure and invigorating. From the site of the college there are fine views of various parts of the city and of the mountains in the distance. The grounds are ample for all purposes. In fact, one has but to take a look at St. Vincent’s to see that it is in all respects a thoroughly appointed college.
Seven years prior, the Methodist Church-affiliated University of Southern California opened just to the southwest adjacent to Agricultural [Exposition] Park, while the Presbyterian Church soon established Occidental College just outside of Boyle Heights in what became East Los Angeles. For the next couple of decades, St. Vincent’s was a primary place of education for many of the Catholic elite of the Angel City, including future lawyer and Democratic Party stalwart Isidore Dockweiler, long-time county sheriff Eugene Biscailuz, actor Leo Carrillo, arranger and composer Ferdé Grofe, and major league baseball player Fred Snodgrass.
Mayor Workman’s son, Boyle, was a feted scholar at St. Vincent’s and went to the president of the City Council through much of the 1920s, while his younger brothers, William, Jr. and Thomas also attended (their sisters were at the Sisters of Charity school). The youngest of the children of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple, Walter and Charles, were also educated at the school and Walter made sure his eldest children, Thomas and Agnes, were given Catholic school educations, as well.
In fact, Thomas went to the preparatory high school as well as completed his bachelor’s degree (much like Boyle did at St. Vincent’s) at the University of Santa Clara, which was founded in 1851 next to San José at the Mission Santa Clara. There, he received a Jesuit-guided education and, in 1911, the Vicentians, citing their purpose when founded in the early 17th century as doing missionary, seminary and parochial work, decided to turn over St. Vincent’s to the Jesuit order, which long was renowned for its focus on education.
The school, though, was moved to Highland Park and refashioned as a high school, while there were plans to have the previous campus used as a parochial school for St. Vincent’s Church. In 1918, another change was made as the former St. Vincent’s became a college again, but with the name of Loyola. Eventually, this became Loyola Marymount. As for the Grand and Washington site, it was sold in the early 1920s to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, a powerful organization formed in 1880 and which moved to its impressive (and still existing) location at 7th and Olive streets in 1912.
Looking forward to the Angel City hosting the Olympic Games of 1932, which had a key venue in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which celebrates its centennial this year, the Club aggressively began plans for the Olympic Auditorium. The structure was completed at the southwest corner of Grand and 18th on the former location, as noted above, of the athletic fields of St. Vincent’s, on 5 August 1925 with boxing being the headline activity for opening night and remaining, with wrestling, the dominant sporting event for years to come.
As for the St. Vincent building, which was not quite four decades old, it was razed in fall 1925 with the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News repeating the old familiar refrain that it was “being torn down to make way for more modern structures.” Actually, much of that locale is now comprised of parking lots used for the Olympic and now by the church. At the end of the year, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature, including some great maps, describing how Los Angeles was just before St. Vincent’s moved from its 6th Street location to the Grand and Washington site, and both the Lugo Adobe and Sixth Street locales were included, along with an image of the latter from the hill where the Normal School for teacher education long stood and which is now the site of the Central Public Library.
Being vital to the nascent and ongoing educational development of a rapidly expanding Los Angeles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, St. Vincent’s College may not have any of its three sites surviving today, but photos like this one help to provide some visual record of its existence for almost a half-century during the Angel City’s phenomenal growth.