Exterior of the Wellness Center at the former Los Angeles County Hospital. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

By Caitlin Hernández/LAist

Originally published Jul 26, 2022

The historic Los Angeles County General Hospital, a once cutting-edge medical facility, is closer to becoming affordable housing — another milestone in the building’s nearly 90-year history.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to advance plans to overhaul the art deco building, including locating millions of dollars in local and state funding to create liveable units. This step comes after Supervisor Hilda Solís began efforts to reuse the building in 2018.

The Great Stone Mother’s Past

The 19-story hospital — nicknamed the “Great Stone Mother” — still stands on State Street at the Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights border. It’s largely been abandoned since 2008, though the lower floors are used as a wellness clinic and office space.

The building isn’t a robust medical center anymore because it wasn’t able to keep up with safety regulations. When the Northridge earthquake struck in 1994, it was one of thousands of damaged buildings, which spurred new hospital and retrofitting rules. The services were moved to the newer LAC+USC Medical Center next door.

General Hospital building in Boyle Heights. Photo by Ethan Fernandez.

During its heyday, the hospital was a state-of-the-art facility, covering 1.2 million square feet. The developers undertook the project during the Great Depression, and it opened in 1933. It started as a teaching hospital focused on trauma care — a legacy that the new center has continued.

The building’s design is among the most recognizable in L.A. The old general hospital was designed by the Allied Architects’ Association, which also devised another classical building: the city’s Hall of Justice. (Northridge quake damage also forced the Hall to close for a time.)

Concrete statues overlook passersby. In the center, above the main doors, is the winged “Angel of Mercy” who comforts two ill people, according to the L.A. Conservancy. The inside is adorned with ceiling murals of Asclepius, who’s the Greek god of medicine, and his sons.

The hospital was also marked by trouble. In 1975, the medical center and its doctors became a target in the entrenched Chicano Movement because of a civil rights class action lawsuit about the sterilization of Mexican American women. In Madrigal v. Quilligan, 10 residents from East L.A. said that doctors pressured them into the procedure, including while in labor.

The court didn’t rule in their favor, but the women’s actions influenced the California Department of Public Health to change sterilization procedures and include bilingual information.

A (Possible) Reimagined Future

The county looked into multiple uses for the old general hospital, but the priorities of community members have ultimately guided the county’s plans.

From 2019 to 2022, a steering committee was tasked with getting community members involved through meetings, events and informal discussions. Residents shared concerns about gentrification and displacement due to the scarcity of affordable housing, according to the county’s feasibility report.

The revision plans could include at least 500 low-cost apartments for unhoused and extremely low-income Angelenos.

“I know that this is a bold step,” said Solís. “There is an opportunity to develop not only housing, but job creation [and] health wellness for many members of our communities. This complements the entire vision of the campus as a healthy village.”

Where the more than $150 million in funding comes from is a source of concern for the board. They’d like to see a permanent solution. However, at this stage, the supervisors have only approved a report about funding and plans — no final decisions have been made. But Solús wants to see her “legacy project” through to completion.

“We can take a great step forward,” Solís said, “ensuring that more folks will get the help that they need that this board has talked about for the last eight years that I have been serving.”

The county will have to clean up the building and make extensive repairs before any construction. Its condition isn’t fit for long-term living yet, and the utilities on-site aren’t usable. That’s where millions in funding will likely go before any large-scale renovations.

The county’s CEO is expected to report back on plans in November.

This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2022 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.

Read more on the plan to reuse the former County Hospital:

County seeks community input as it moves forward with General Hospital repurposing

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