As Occidental College launches its 125th anniversary celebration this week, we take a look back at the school's early years in Highland Park. This community history is the product of collaboration between Occidental College and the Highland Park Heritage Trust (HPHT). It was researched and written by Professor Jan Lin of the Occidental College Sociology Department, with Jean Won, Sociology student in the graduating class of 2001.
Although many universities found their first home in the Highlands, Occidental College is the most significant educational institution because it is the only one to have remained in Northeast Los Angeles. USC, what is now Azusa Pacific University, Whittier, Loyola Marymount, and others all had their start in the Highlands.
Heralded as one of the most diverse liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News and World Report, Occidental is one of a very few selective liberal arts colleges to be located in the midst of a densely settled and demographically diverse metropolitan region. The College is also distinctive for public service and community engagement. Among the campus institutions devoted to community outreach and research are the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI), the Center for Community-Based Learning (CCBL, formerly the Center for Volunteerism and Community Service), and the Northeast Los Angeles Community Outreach Partnership Center (COPC), funded by the Office of University Partnerships of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Community engagement complements the College's distinct historical relationship with the Northeast Los Angeles region. Occidental College was originally founded in Boyle Heights in 1887. This site was destroyed by fire, and the College relocated to the Figueroa Street corridor of Highland Park in 1898. Congestion in this area spurred a final move in 1914 to its present 95-acre site in Eagle Rock, where the College has had more room to expand.
The Highland Park to which Occidental College relocated in 1898 was a railroad stop on the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad (later Union Pacific), which shuttled between Los Angeles downtown and Pasadena. The campus was located between Figueroa Boulevard, Monte Vista Avenue, Avenue 50 and 51, bisected by the rail line that was used at the time between Figueroa and Monte Vista. There were three main buildings at the seven-acre Highland Park site, including the Academy Building, the Stimson Library, and the Hall of Arts and Letters.
Classes were held in the Hall of Arts and Letters, which still stands today as the Savoy Apartments. The locomotive ran right by the college on a steep gradient up the Arroyo, causing a huge clatter which interrupted classes for four minutes with each passing, causing Morgan Odell, Sr. (Class of 1917) to recall the noise of the "reverberating and clanking steel... as the howling monster roared by like the crack of doom" (Rolle, 1986: 41).
The athlete Fred Thomson (Class of 1910) regularly performed the prank of mounting the train towards its front, running along the roofs of a long line of cars towards the rear, and dismounting at the same spot on the ground he had mounted from. One time he commandeered the locomotive from the conductor and motorman to great public amusement, but to the intense embarrassment of College officials who were threatened with a damage suit by the Railroad several times the value of the College endowment.
A frenetic trainer, Fred once spent a night before an important Pomona track meet with his astronomy class atop Mount Wilson. Getting up at dawn the next morning, he ran towards the college down the winding mountain trail, then across all of Altadena and Pasadena. He still managed to win six first places that day. He won the world championship in the decathlon in 1910, and competed in the 1912 Olympic Games.
Fred Thomson later attended Princeton Theological Seminary, where he became ordained as a Presbyterian minister. His love for a divorced woman, Frances Marion, a famous screenwriter, was allegedly the cause for his turn away from the ministry according to Marion's autobiography, "Off With Their Heads." He began his acting career in a movie directed by Marion playing opposite Mary Pickford, known as the "Queen of Hollywood" at the time. "A contract with Paramount Pictures, where he portrayed a rather mild manner Jesse James, and a more than somewhat cleaned-up Kit-Carson... solidified Thomson's popularity" (Cooper 1981). He died prematurely at 38 of pneumonia on Christmas day, 1928.
The great modern poet Robinson Jeffers graduated Occidental College in 1905. He was entranced by the natural beauty of the area, and hiked regularly in local mountains. Jeffers composed some of his early poetry for Occidental's literary journal at the time. Rolle describes Jeffer's poetry as "generally unrhymed as to meter, but both stark and wildly rhythmic" (Rolle 1962; 21). Jeffers was a local student, living in a house that his father built in Highland Park, just a few blocks away from the Occidental campus. The Highland Park house that Robinson Jeffers lived in still stands on 346 N. Avenue 57, according to Nicole Possert of the Highland Park Heritage Trust.
Jeffers was profoundly influenced by Occidental College and his surroundings at the time. "A shy, introspective sort, Jeffers took frequent hikes in the hills surrounding the Arroyo. In an early poem that appeared in 1906, he offers us a view of the Highland Park that he knew:
I know a hill that stands aloof Gazes across the city There tis' good to stay Letting the sight go free and wander away Over the roofs, over the tangled mazes Of streets whose traffic Even here upraises Its multitudinous voice
There were two presidential visits during the College's residence in Highland Park. William H. Taft visited in 1909. President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech at the Hall of Arts and Letters during a West Coast campaign swing in March 1911. While being driven from Highland Park to South Pasadena, he is remembered to have pronounced: "This Arroyo would make one of the greatest parks in the world!"
Congestion from the railroad line and ongoing urban development pushed trustees to find a new location, and an undeveloped site was selected in Eagle Rock. The future Eagle Rock campus was assembled through a 65-acre gift, and purchase of 21 acres from a syndicate headed by James G. Garth, W.A. Roberts and Ralph Rogers, an active developer in Highland Park (Garner 1954). The syndicate created a subdivision called "Occidental Park" surrounding the circular thoroughfare of Campus Road. Easy transportation access was not the aim of the developers, who intended the neighborhood to be exclusive. The architect for the campus was Myron Hunt, of the Chicago School of Architecture, who was inspired by the Beaux Arts influence championed at the 1893 Chicago World Columbian Exposition. Ground was broken on Johnson, Fowler, and Swan Halls, which were completed for dedication in 1914.
Top:Occidental College in Boyle Heights. The cornerstone of this building was laid on September 20, 1887. Photo courtesy of Occidental College Archives and Special Collections.
- More on Highland Park:
- Departures: Highland Park - An interactive documentary on the social and cultural history of the neighborhood
- Highland Park Field Guides - Explore the neighborhood, become a tourist in your own town
- Profile: Nicole Possert
- Who is Olive Percival? - Profile of the forgotten artist of the Arroyo
- What's on a mixtape from Highland Park in 1905?