The Kaspare Cohn Hospital and the Mt. Sinai Hospital and Clinic, Part Five

Editor’s Note:  We come to the end of this very interesting and informative post by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez on the eastside origins of one of the signal medical care facilities in Los Angeles, including a fascinating politicized issue over a fresco mural at the Mount Sinai Home for the Chronic Invalids, the later history of that institution in Boyle Heights and its 1950s move and merger, two decades later, with Cedars of Lebanon to create today’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.  Thanks to Rudy for his continuing excellent work in sharing the diverse history of Boyle Heights and please check back for future posts.

In 1937, Myer Shaffer, an up-and-coming 23-year-old Jewish muralist, occasional art columnist, and a Boyle Heights resident, was commissioned by the Federal Arts Project, a New Deal program during the Great Depression, to paint a mural, his second for the project, in the auditorium of the Mount Sinai Home for the Chronic Invalids. Shaffer studied fresco painting in 1932 under famed muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. An ardent Communist, Siqueiros painted in the aesthetics of socialist realism, a style that greatly influenced Shaffer. That same year, Shaffer also joined other Siqueiros proteges from the art institute as a member of the “Bloc of Painters” collective who assisted Siqueiros with all three of the seminal murals he would paint in Los Angeles in 1932.  These included “Street Meeting” at the Chouinard Institute; “Portrait of Mexico Today” at a private residence in Pacific Palisades; and his acclaimed America Tropical, a politically charged work done for the summer Olympic Games held in Los Angeles on the side of a building on Olvera Street that was whitewashed because it did not celebrate the United States.  The mural, however, was restored and has been available for public viewing at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Park.   

In 1936, Shaffer completed a provocative mural entitled “The Social Aspects of Tuberculosis” at the Los Angeles Tuberculosis Sanatorium, widely known today as the City of Hope, in Duarte. In July of the following year, Shaffer completed his much larger, 400 square foot fresco for the Mount Sinai facility called “The Elder in Relation to Society.”  In an interview that year with the Hollywood Citizen News, the artist said the fresco’s biblical figures of the youthful warrior Judas Maccabee and of David, the elder, Judean king, demonstrated that “age does not incapacitate.” The fresco also included a small, clearly multiracial group of people, plus a single figure representing death, in the upper portion of the painting. It might suggest Shaffer wanted to acknowledge the shared mortality of all human life, as well as the reality of a multi-ethnic society, as exemplified in Boyle Heights, at a time when American culture mostly emphasized a largely white, homogenous self-image. Further revealing his attitude about his work, Shaffer wrote in an art column two months later that, “a fallacy in numerous murals is the disregard of the truth for historic events. An example of this is the Spanish colonization of the west. None show the failure of the Spanish settlements.” It seems a fresco with a racially inclusive statement, and the image of a leader of a Jewish-led revolt against their oppressors, should not have been a surprise coming from this Siqueiros-influenced Boyle Heights artist.  

Hollywood Citizen-News, 16 July 1937.

But sometime in early 1938, Shaffer’s fresco, like America Tropical, was completely painted over with no official explanation ever given by the Mount Sinai administrators. They, too, might have been expecting a more city-friendly booster image, but the fresco’s progressive statement was actually more in line with many of the hospital’s early, working-class, supporters. These latter, however, were not like the growing class of affluent patrons, and their Hollywood connections, that were now dominating the fundraising activities for the Mount Sinai Home, especially during the depression years. According to the Los Angeles Examiner of March 11, 1938, Shaffer sued Mount Sinai for painting over his work and damaging his artistic reputation, although it’s uncertain if the dispute was ever resolved. 

Moreover, Shaffer’s “The Social Aspects of Tuberculosis”, deemed to be too Communist, was also whitewashed the same year by the Los Angeles Tuberculosis Sanatorium. The artist died in 1973 and, although he was a significant Works Progress Administration (known as the WPA) figure during a period of radical, leftist public art in Depression-era Los Angeles, Shaffer’s legacy, like his artwork, has been eradicated from the city’s cultural history, where he is hardly known or mentioned today except for an informative 2010 essay about his work by art historian, Sarah Schrank.

Los Angeles Herald, 11 March 1938.

The closing and relocation of the Kaspare Cohn Hospital in 1930 essentially left the Mount Sinai Home for the Chronic Invalids in the role of caretakers of public health for the Boyle Heights area. But the Belvedere neighborhood facility was mostly for long-term convalescence care and rehabilitation. By the end of the decade, with admissions already at full capacity, its administrative board decided to step-up its fundraising efforts in order to double the size of the 50-bed facility. More significantly, there was also the will to build a much-needed, comprehensive outpatient clinic in the heart of Boyle Heights. To that end, several meetings took place at the Folke Shul on Soto Street with delegates from various Jewish-aid organizations attending to form a coalition to help establish an affordable and easily accessible clinic for local residents.  

Money was raised for the proposed annex and community clinic, as usual, with the stalwart support of the local community, as well as the now-common celebrity-filled events, compliments of film studio heads, like charity balls, concerts, and baseball games.  There were, though, a few new wrinkles, such as a bathing beauty contest, a raffle for a 1938 Master Chevrolet (showcased in front of the National Theater on Brooklyn Avenue), and a picnic bazaar on the grounds of the Mt. Sinai Home, hosted by popular comedian Milton Berle. 

B’nai B’rith Messenger, 26 August 1938.

In January of 1940, the new annex was opened on the campus of what was now officially called the Mount Sinai Hospital, bringing the total number of beds from 50 to 102. At the same time, after the Conference of Jewish Organizations bought the property at the corner of Breed Street and Michigan Avenue from the Catholic Church the year before, the Mount Sinai outpatient clinic was already under construction. 

The street-packed opening dedication ceremonies for the newly built, two-story Mount Sinai Medical Clinic was held on November 8, 1940. Located at 207 North Breed Street, at the end of the block from the Breed Street Shul, the clinic’s mission was described by the B’nai B’rith Messenger, the local Jewish newspaper, as a “non-sectarian institution devoted to the service of the needy sick without regard for race, creed, or color.”  This signified the progressive principles of the surrounding community that helped establish the full-service free clinic for all Boyle Heights residents. By 1950, the local press would refer to the eastside-based Mount Sinai organization as “an institution with heart.”

B’nai B’rith Messenger, 8 November 1940.

 As the second charity institution in the Boyle Heights area, Mount Sinai benefited from ongoing appeals over the next two decades for financial support along with the occasional celebrity sighting, such as a 1952 visit by comedian Jack Benny.  But in the postwar years, the Jewish community of Boyle Heights started to disperse to the suburbs west of downtown Los Angeles and to the less urban and developed areas of the San Fernando Valley. It was only a matter of time before the Mount Sinai medical institutions would make the move as well.

In 1950, the Emma and Hyman Levine Foundation purchased property near the intersection of Beverly and San Vicente boulevards on the west side and donated the parcel for the construction of the new Mount Sinai Hospital, with the foundation’s contract mandating that the facility should remain affordable, based on “one’s ability to pay what they can.” Not yet looking like the affluent area of today, the surrounding property was home to a dozen oil derricks, an Arden Farms Dairy and its grazing cows, and a small children’s amusement and pony ride park.  

B’nai B’rith Messenger, 13 June 1952.

Financed totally by public subscriptions, the new, concrete-steel-and-glass, eight-story, 253 bed, Mount Sinai Hospital opened in June 1955 at 8712 Beverly Boulevard. The Mount Sinai medical facilities were now three entities, the long-term care hospital on Bonnie Beach Place, the Boyle Heights clinic on Breed Street, and their new, state-of-the-art facility.

Consolidation of the trio began in 1960 with the closure of the Mount Sinai Clinic on Breed Street, as a new clinic was now operating at the westside hospital. The former clinic building is still standing and has been in continuous use by various health and social-welfare agencies that assist the now predominantly Latinx residents of Boyle Heights. The rehabilitation hospital on Bonnie Beach Place closed in 1966, transferring the last 66 patients to other health-care facilities. As late as 1983, the building was occupied by the Chicana Service Action Center, a non-profit job training and placement agency for women in the eastside. The former hospital building is gone now, and since 2009, has been the site of the William R. Anton Elementary School.

B’nai B’rith Messenger, 12 August 1966.

One final act of consolidation remained to be played out, and that took place in 1976. After several years of negotiations, the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on Fountain Avenue, formerly the Kaspare Cohn Hospital on Whittier Boulevard, (1910-1930), and the Mount Sinai Hospital, formerly the Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital on Bonnie Beach Place (1920-1966) and its auxiliary clinic on Breed Street (1940-1960) officially merged at the Beverly Boulevard location. Combining their names, the single facility was officially named Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The merger also served as a conclusion to a journey that was initiated with the founding of both hospitals, over one hundred years ago, in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, where both institutions received sustaining support during the critical early years of their existence.