The International Institute of Los Angeles Centennial

A century ago, the International Institute of the YWCA opened its doors with a mission to “serve the women and girls coming from Europe and the Orient and to assist the foreign communities in their adjustment to life in this country.” 

The United States was in the midst of one of the largest mass migrations of people in history, with new arrivals from Asia and Europe, principally, streaming to this country for many reasons, including religious and personal freedom, better job opportunities, and general quality of life issues. 

Anytime someone moves to another country there are all manner of challenges, as well as opportunities, especially for minority populations.  The International Institute was intended to make the transition smoother for female immigrants coming to Los Angeles, which was growing rapidly in the first part of the 20th century.

This image is from a 20 December 1915 article in the Los Angeles Times about the move of the International Institute of Los Angeles to the William H. Perry house in Boyle Heights.  The Perry home, now known as the Mount Pleasant House, was moved to Heritage Square Museum in the 1970s.
The Institute opened its doors in downtown Los Angeles, but quickly needed to find a better space in which to conduct its work.  An article in the Los Angeles Times from 20 November 1915 discussed that the organization had two locations: one on Commercial Street closer to downtown, which dealt mainly with Italian immigrants, and another on Utah Street in the Flats area of Boyle Heights, which served Russian migrants, of which a large number were settling in the Flats area over the previous decade or so.
However, these locations were not sufficient to meet the growing needs of the Institute, so a new site was purchased in Boyle Heights.  This was the former home of William H. Perry on Pleasant Street in the Mount Pleasant tract just south of Brooklyn Avenue, now César Chavez Avenue.  The Italianate mansion was designed by noted early Los Angeles architect Ezra F. Kysor (who designed the Pico House and St. Vibiana Cathedral, among others) and completed in 1876 for the lumber dealer.

The article noted that the house had more recently been owned by S. C. Hubbell, a prominent figure in Los Angeles.  Hubbell was born in 1841 in Conewango, New York, near Buffalo and became a lawyer.  After the death of his wife, Hubbell migrated west and practiced briefly in San Bernardino before relocating to Los Angeles.  He remarried and quickly became a busy player in the local scene.  His law practice mainly centered on street railways and, not surprisingly, he became an investor in several. 

With John E. Hollenbeck, another major Boyle Heights figure, Hubbell purchased the city’s first streetcar line, the Spring and Sixth Street Railway.  He also was involved with the First Street Railway and the Los Angeles Cable Railway, which operated its line to Boyle Heights. 
Hubbell was a trustee of the University of Southern California, a director of the National Bank of California and for several years owned the San Clemente Wool Company, which supervised sheep ran on a lease held by Hubbell on San Clemente Island, off the coast of Orange and San Diego counties.  He also owned the Hubbell Oil Company, which had several oil wells in the old Los Angeles field, roughly where the 101 and 110 freeways meet.
Another significant project in which Hubbell was involved was his role in creating Westlake Park, now MacArthur Park, which occurred when he was serving on the city’s park commission in the first half of the 1890s.

In 1888, Hubbell purchased the Perry house (some information on William H. Perry can be found
here on a post from this blog) and occupied it for over fifteen years.  In 1904, he bought property on the Westmoreland Tract, developed by Wesley Clark and E.P. Bryan and built a home on Arapahoe Street and Tenth Street, now Olympic Boulevard, where he lived until his death in 1922.

Meantime, the International Institute received assistance in renovating the interior of what is now called the Mount Pleasant House before moving its operations there. 

Curiously, the Times article, after referring to the fact that the house was once a “showplace” of the city and that thousands of tourists had “Kodaked” (that is, photographed) the long palm tree-lined drive to the mansion, commented that “with the expansion of Los Angeles, it has become really a center around which there are colonies of many nationalities.  Within easy walking distance, practically every large foreign colony of the city is located.” 

It may be the old language of “colony” and the negative-sounding “but” that makes the statement read as if the glory days of the mansion had faded in the midst of a well-heeled upper class exodus and the “colonization” of Boyle Heights by eastern and southern European and Asian immigrants.

The first formal event of the Institute in its new home was to be a Christmas party thrown the following week for some three hundred children, with the next major activity a New Year’s Day party.  However, a near-disaster almost befell the Institute and its new home—a topic that will be the covered on the next post here!

Meanwhile, the article continued that the work of the Institute was to provide for its clientele, “the ideal of American life—a friendly place, a place of justice, and a gateway to advantages this country has to offer in the great work of assimilating foreign elements.”

Also noted in the piece was  the work of the Institute in providing classes to women in learning English, as well as home-making, sanitation and marketing and the piece included an observation that foreign immigration to the United States had declined by a dramatic 60-75%—this being because of the outbreak the previous year of World War I.

The Institute rented the Perry mansion for almost a decade, until a donation by Adeline Frances Wills allowed the organization to raise the $20,000 needed to buy the home and lot.  That same year, 1924, brought a major immigration act by Congress that established a quota system which significantly restricted migration to the United States.  The work of the organization continued in dealing increasingly with those foreign-born women in the city, rather than newcomers and then the Great Depression brought a new urgency to the work of the Institute during difficult economic times.

Over the decades since, the Institute has continued to provide important services to its clientele amidst changing times and circumstances.  Congratulations to the International Institute of Los Angeles on its 100th birthday!

This post was made possible by research conducted by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez.  Contribution by Paul R. Spitzzeri, Assistant Director, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry