On Books and Places: 1919, a big year in Los Angeles

| December 4, 2019 | 0 Comments

CENTRAL LIBRARY, view east (Bunker Hill at left), c. 1926.

STATE NORMAL SCHOOL was on the site of today’s Central Library. View southwest from Bunker Hill, c. 1882.

As readers of the Larchmont Chronicle know, many institutions and places around the neighborhood have celebrated a centenary in 2019. Just last month, John Welborne called attention to several, including Musso & Frank Grill, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Wilshire Country Club. John’s point was that the region’s growing sense of itself, its relief from war worries, and its confidence about the future engendered a civic mindedness that has built much we still enjoy. It’s a thought worth following as we move close to 2020, because 1919 really was a big year in Los Angeles.


Ambition was evident on Vermont Avenue just south of Santa Monica

UCLA in Westwood, c. 1929.

Boulevard. That’s where the Southern Branch of the University of California opened on September 15, 1919. By the time of its first graduating class, a search was on for a new and larger space that would accommodate demand for public higher education. Westwood back then seemed remote and distant, but land there was available and relatively cheap. So deals were struck, building commenced, and UCLA found its lasting home in 1929.

The behind-the-scenes story of the real estate transactions involving the corner of Fifth and Grand, Vermont Ave. and Westwood — plus the necessary community financing — can be found in a book by James R. Martin (grand uncle of John Welborne) titled “The University of California in Los Angeles” (1925).

UCLA’s grand opening of its new Westwood campus in 1929 means there will be another centenary to celebrate before long, but 1919 was the real start of it all.

RALPH BUNCHE, an early graduate of UCLA, in his senior photo in 1927.

And it was quite a start. Ralph Bunche (who was to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 1950) was among the earliest enrollees at UCLA. He and his cohorts were the “pioneers” who together constituted an unusual university demographic for the time. Because the Vermont Ave. campus had morphed from an established teaching school — the State Normal School that had been relocated from the present site of the Los Angeles Central Library, all as recounted in the Martin book — women at the new Southern Branch of the state university outnumbered men by a wide margin: 98 women and 30 men graduated in 1925. While that fact didn’t and couldn’t separate the institution from larger social injustices (leadership long remained nearly all male and white), it did influence class profiles and culture in years ahead.

Thinking of people in conjunction with place and time provides more to reflect upon. Donald Cram, a highly regarded teacher at UCLA and a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, was born in 1919. So was Jackie Robinson; he met his future wife at UCLA and starred as a long jumper and a football player for the Bruins. Basketball and baseball were then his minor sports, although he lettered in all four. Ray Bradbury, who in the early ’50s wrote “Fahrenheit 451” in the UCLA library basement, spoils the time / place / person symmetry, but not by much. He was born in 1920.

Racial covenants

Of course, arbitrary connections are easy to make and not necessarily meaningful. But aligning some historical markers prompts real thought and feeling. Nat King Cole was born in 1919 and bought a house on Muirfield Road in Hancock Park in 1948. Many neighbors were actively hostile to a black family — any black family — moving into Hancock Park in violation of the long-standing deed covenants that were ruled unconstitutional that same year by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Shelley v. Kraemer.

LOREN MILLER was a Los Angeles lawyer involved in overturning racial covenants at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948.

One of the lawyers successfully arguing Shelley v. Kraemer’s companion case (McGhee v. Sipes) at the Supreme Court was Angeleno civil rights lawyer Loren Miller, who later was named a judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court. His son, Loren Miller, Jr., became a Superior Court judge. His granddaughter, Robin Miller Sloane, has served as a Superior Court judge since 2003, and her undergraduate degree is from… UCLA.

NAT KING COLE, born in 1919, moved to Hancock Park in 1948, and the 90004 Post Office was named for him in 2002. His U.S. postage stamp was issued in 1994.

History isn’t a nostalgia mill. But taking in all parts of a story allows us to appreciate positive change, along with the grace, dignity, and courage of the Nat King Cole family and others like them. The Robinson family, too, was contending with great pressure in 1948, the year Jackie broke the color line in baseball. The point can be sharpened with yet another alignment: George Wallace, born in 1919, was in 1948 just starting a political career that would be built almost entirely on exacerbating the nation’s racial divide.

Personal reflections

The rich texture woven into the past century has prompted personal reflection as well. My father was born in 1919 in Gage, Oklahoma. He grew up in the dust bowl and the Great Depression. He left both behind to serve overseas in the Second World War. He returned to the States, met and married my mother, a woman from western Kansas, and moved to Central California. That’s where my sister, brothers, and I started life. My wife’s mother was also born in 1919, but into a very different world: Juiz de Fora, Brazil. She would spend her married life in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Her only daughter wound up in Los Angeles, where — at UCLA — she met me. Unlikely connections created out of movement have marked the century. And for some of that movement and those connections, I’m deeply grateful.

By Bruce Beiderwell


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