The first Village, constructed for the 1932 Games, was anything but. It consisted of a series of modest, miniature huts laid out in an ovular shape — akin to an athletics track. Olympic flags adorned the gates.
The village's location atop the Baldwin Hills made it an ideal vantage point from which to view how the Games had affected the city, and to experience how the Village became its residential epicenter. Reporter Winifred Selover described the scene of the altered metropolis for the Sutter County Farmer:
Looking back into the city after our arrival, we could see myriads of lights. Cars with the license plates of every country in the world were creeping up the hill [towards the Village]. Los Angeles at night, gaily decked out with flags and colored light for this festive Tenth Olympiad, lay behind us; the Olympic Village with flags of every nation flying from its buildings, before us.
Such mystical stories about the village's charm — and by association, that of L.A. and the Games — were exported through Los Angeles and beyond, ensuring the continuation of the Village as a bona fide tradition for many Games to come.
Upon arrival, athletes would see the large iron gates lining the village's perimeter, and a range of international flags flying around the entrance. Village mascot Smoky, "a small dog of doubtful parentage" according to Fresno County paper The Kingsburg Recorder, was on hand to greet any and all visitors.
Smoky's salutations weren't the only things putting a smile on visitors' faces, though. For the discounted price of $2 each, athletes were privy to a custom-built and all-expenses paid "miniature city," complete with dirt roads, shower blocks, a hospital, a theater and more amenities to ensure a comfortable stay. It wasn't the most luxurious accommodation in town — even the Official Report described it as a "cantonment" of sorts — but it didn't have to be, it was the first of its kind.
When bidding for the Games, L.A.'s Organizing Committee prepared a Hollywood-style motion picture showing all the sporting facilities L.A. offered, as well as their offers for discounted travel. The clincher, though, was the new idea of an Olympic Village in which all men were equal and unified, the ultimate testament to the Olympic ideal.
It was this conceptual novelty along with the natural fanfare of the Olympics that captured the imagination of Californians. Due to the celebrated athletes coming and going frequently and the commotion throughout L.A. about the Games, the Village became an engrossing hub. Every day, thousands of baying fans waited outside the gates in hope of snagging a conversation or an autograph.
Subject of particular praise was the sportsmanship and brotherhood which the Village inspired. As the Los Angeles Record emphasized, "Call it what you like; ten-ring circus, melting pot, polyglot merry-go-round, anything. Nevertheless, it's one of few places where men from all walks of life can stand on common ground." Stories abound about athletes, unable to communicate with each other except by gestures, getting along with aplomb.
Such camaraderie was aided by the pleasant features which punctuated the Village. Flower beds and trees were planted around each cottage while water wagons trailed round the five miles of non-paved road throughout the Village, to minimize dust creation. It was like a little Modernist expanse, complete with gardens and acreage which wouldn't have been out of place in SoCal suburbia.
While Paris had some form of precursor, it was not widely used and only near a couple of venues. Los Angeles' offering was more comprehensive and offered a much more centralized, logistically-sensible experience for athletes. It was only a 25-minute drive from the center of L.A., 40 minutes from the rowing center and 10 minutes from the Coliseum.
Its location, though, was decided upon not due to its convenience but due to its temperature. Thermometers were installed citywide, and Baldwin Hills was found to be 10 degrees cooler than any other potential sites. Stifling heat was a concern as many foreign athletes were accustomed to cooler climates. This site choice not only offset potential competitive disadvantages, it ensured that foreign athletes and delegates did not report their living space to be uncomfortably warm.
The Baldwin Hills construction was done in a style not dissimilar to the housing constructions seen throughout L.A. at the time, though built more hastily and at much less expense due to the Games' partial focus on frugality. It was complete with mess halls, hospital and theater. A road could not be installed as its site was borrowed from a local landowner, and had to be returned to them unscathed after the Olympics.
Hired to design the village was developer H.O. Davis, previously involved with the set-up of grounds for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, which was so instrumental in inspiring Los Angeles' push for the Olympics itself. He was to oversee the erection of the Village, which had to be elastic in its conception owing to the fact that the organizers had no idea how many athletes each country would send.
The Village was a partial continuation of the mission mythos, which characterized booster efforts throughout the early 20th century; the "cardboard houses," as one Chicago Tribune columnist called them, were framed by the Organizing Committee as pseudo-Spanish "bungalows" in a nod to L.A.'s Latin American history. Plans to individualize the huts for each Olympic Committee based on their traditional architecture were abandoned in favor of the cheaper box-style huts.
However, it was far from glamorous. The box-style huts ("Village cottages," according to the Games Committee's Official Report) — favored instead of more unique compositions — were sometimes described as poorly made by the 1,836 male athletes who stayed there at a cost (funded by the Committee) of $2 per day. As gender-mixing was considered uncouth, the 126 female athletes were put up in the Chapman Park Hotel.
The Village's architectural modesty, while criticized by some reporters, proved useful for the Games' promoters who presented the Village as representative of the equitable Olympic ideal. "There fell upon [the Village's] proponents the responsibility of materializing its physical side in a manner so perfect as to leave open no avenue for failure save that of failure of human nature itself," stated the Olympic Committee's Official Report of the Games, "Night after night, within the portals of the Village, victor met vanquished in the embrace of true personal friendship and the understanding of man to man."
Such solidarity between "all men", though, was limited to the confines of the village and the Games. The Organizing Committee — so committed to a narrative of equality — was made up of real estate magnates who contributed to the segregation of the city.
The rhetoric espoused about the village and its Olympic ideals was another tool used by boosters to ensure the Games was a success, and that the city was portrayed as some kind of equitable utopia. That L.A. — a city in which people of color faced segregation and acute discrimination — was asserted a 'melting pot' by some reporters demonstrates just how effective and dishonest the Olympic façade was.
Rhetoric no longer necessary, the village was torn down after the Olympics, with some units sold off and others disassembled to be sold at auction, appeasing the souvenir hunters who had regularly tried to raid the village during the Games. As Jeremy White points out, Laguna Beach developer Fred Leach purchased nearly two hundred, desiring to create a permanent Olympic village overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This never materialized, though, due to a land dispute.
One house that avoided auction was that of the Mexican delegation, who donated one of their cottages to a local merchant. It's still there today.
The Olympic village in 1932 was a temporary structure, but its frugality — built cheap, but pragmatically — would set a precedent for future Olympics in L.A.; its conceptual ingenuity would be a model for future Olympics worldwide as it became a cornerstone of the Olympic athlete experience. Contemporary Games would do well to emulate the low physical impact and high ideational success achieved by this simple series of structures.
Through a grant made possible by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the USC Libraries are digitizing 37,000 photographs of Los Angeles from the Dick Whittington Studio between the 1930s and 40s.