Children's Hospital complex

The Children's Hospital LA complex at Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard.

East Hollywood - Why does this neighborhood have so many hospitals within a block of Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue?

Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, and a branch of Kaiser Permanente - have more than 1,200 hospital beds within about half a mile of each other, stretched along Sunset between Virgil and Alexandria Avenues. And that’s not even counting the old Cedars of Lebanon, which used to be at Sunset and Catalina Street.

Why have all these hospitals been so close together?

It’s not because of zoning.

These hospitals were already in place before a zoning incentive was created for hospital campuses in the Vermont/Western SNAP Specific Plan, according to Los Angeles Angeles City Planning. For that matter, the zoning provision that now exists has never even been used, Planning said.

The more likely reason? The hospitals that arrived here first simply attracted the hospitals that came later, L.A. Planning’s statement said.

That being the case, maybe all these hospitals are here because of Emma H. Phillips.

Who?

Starting with Children’s Hospital 

Children's Hospital Los Angeles

Children's Hospital Los Angeles, in East Hollywood

She wasn’t famous. She wasn’t vastly rich. When Phillips died on Oct. 25, 1909, she left an estate worth $40,530, according to the Los Angeles Herald from that year. That translated to about $1 million now - comfortable, but not an empire.

It was enough, however, for Phillips to do one extremely significant thing: She bequeathed four acres of land at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue to the Children’s Hospital Society of Los Angeles. She also threw in $3,000 given to help construct a new building, and $600 to beautify the grounds.

Phillips, who was at one point married to a doctor, set the condition that a picture of her dead daughter Lillian had to hang somewhere suitable in the hospital for the first 50 years of operation.

Before Phillips died, Children’s Hospital had been located on Castelar Street by Alpine Street, in what is now Chinatown. It was also bursting at the seams, according to the book, “Children’s Hospital and the Leaders of Los Angeles," by Margaret Leslie Davis.

“Any child hit by a streetcar or injured in an accident any kind whose parents could not pay for care was brought to the hospital,” Davis wrote.

At Sunset and Vermont, though, the hospital would have room to grow. There wasn’t much there at the time.

When Children’s Hospital officially opened in 1914, “the area was sparsely residential,” according to research conducted for a Kaiser expansion project, “with several single-family properties on the west side of Vermont Avenue, as well as the final vestiges of its agricultural past, including a lettuce nursery at the southwest corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue and a feed and grain store south of that.”

Hollywood Presbyterian - Why did a City Council change its mind?

Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital 2

Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center on Vermont Avenue.

If the genesis of Children’s Hospital LA feels like something from the rural turn of the 20th century, the particulars of Hollywood Presbyterian are going to sound a lot more familiar: angry neighbors, zoning board hearings, invisible deals.

In 1922, it was reported that Hollywood didn’t have a hospital. A plan was then arising to build what was then called Hollywood Hospital - not in East Hollywood, but at the foot of Cahuenga Pass, on a five-acre hillside site at Highland Avenue and Cahuenga Boulevard, according to the Los Angeles Times from August 15, 1920.

The residents nearby did not like that at all. So a petition circulated to halt construction - and by the end of the month, neighbors were asking the City Council to declare the area a “Residential Zone No. 9,” while denying that this was specifically aimed at the hospital project.

It’s not clear what happened with that zoning effort. But Hollywood Hospital was soon looking for somewhere else to build. Developers briefly flirted with a site at Hollywood Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue. In February 1922, however, a list of building projects in the Los Angeles Evening Express included Hollywood Hospital at Vermont and Sunset, to cost $500,000.

So why put it there?

The land buyer, the Hollywood Hospital Association, thought a new zone was going to be established at that location, according to the Los Angeles Evening Express. A change of zoning had, indeed, been approved for that area by the planning commission.

But by the end of the City Council meeting the following Monday, part of Hollywood Hospital’s land had been zoned against hospitals. Then the council flip-flopped, approving the change despite the mayor's opposition. 

It is not clear why the council changed course this way. But in May 1924, the hospital formally opened, with the L.A. Times saying it was considered “the most completely and modernly furnished institution west of Chicago.”

Cedars of Lebanon breezes through

Former site of Cedars of Lebanon

The former site of Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on the 4800 block of Fountain, now part of the Church of Scientology.

Cedars of Lebanon wasn't here long - less than 50 years. At least one doctor from the opening days even stopped by when it closed.

“Dr. Marcus Rabwin, the first surgical resident at the hospital when it opened its doors in 1930, was there to tell about the first operation done on a private patient,” the L.A. Times wrote on May 15, 1976, when the hospital ceased operations. “It was a gall bladder removal and after it was over the doctors had to carry the patient - still anesthetized - down a flight of stairs because the elevator wasn’t working.”

It’s not clear why Cedars landed at 4833 Fountain in the first place - except that, like Children’s Hospital, it had outgrown its prior location. It had been operating out of East Los Angeles as the Kaspare Cohn Hospital, at 3942 Whittier Blvd., where it had just 50 beds and a tubercular ward with 10 cots. By 1925, a new location seemed to have been chosen, at Fountain Avenue and Catalina Street - where the new hospital would have room for 278 patients.

Ground was broken on April 14, 1929, and the hospital was renamed Cedars of Lebanon while it was still under construction, it. Opening ceremonies took place on May 11, 1930, with dedication services led by Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin.

It quickly became popular with members of the show business industry. Cecil B. DeMille went there for abdominal surgery in October 1930. An agreement was also reached with the motion picture industry to set aside 10 beds in perpetuity in exchange for $50,000.

And then, after 46 years, the hospital left - for the same reason it came here in the first place: To expand even further. Cedars of Lebanon headed out to Beverly Hills, where it merged with Mount Sinai Hospital to form Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, with 886 beds and a ranking as the seventh best hospital in the entire country. Meanwhile, the old nine-building hospital complex between Sunset and Fountain was sold in February 1977 to the church of Scientology for $5 million cash.

Kaiser Permanente marches in

Kaiser Hospital_Sunset Boulevard_ East Hollywood

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Around the year 1950, Kaiser Permanente wanted to expand to a few new locations, including Los Angeles. And as it happened, a few years before that - in 1946 - Aline Barnsdall died.

Right. That Barnsdall.

She didn’t just own the Hollywood Boulevard site that became Barnsdall Art Park and Hollyhock House. She also owned a lot of adjacent parcels that faced the street. She even tried - without success - to have the city buy those lots when she sold the Barnsdall Park land in 1931, according to the draft report from the Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center Project.

So after Barnsdall died, her trust decided to sell off those remaining parcels to create a development called “Barnsdall Square.” Part of that development became the mall along Vermont Avenue between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards. Some areas became apartments on North Edgemont Street. Other parcels - along Sunset, near Cedars of Lebanon - were set aside for medical buildings.

That's how Kaiser Permanente ended up opening a branch along Sunset in 1953, with a seven-story, $3 million building that held 224 beds, according to the Daily News from June 17 of that year. Over the following decades, those facilities would expand. According to the recent draft report, the number of beds has increased to 460.

Expanding Hospital Zone

In recent years, the three remaining hospitals near Sunset and Vermont have all launched major expansions or renovations.

Children's Hospital, for example,  purchased the Vons supermarket and other properties to the east along Sunset for future growth.  The Kaiser Medical Center has expanded and rebuilt its main hospital and is preparing for more projects to the west of Vermont Avenue. Meanwhile, Hollywood Presbyterian built a large parking garage.

So it seems that this section of East Hollywood will remain a hospital zone for decades to come.

Lillian Fellows Burdett

Lillian Fellows Burdett, from the portrait that used to hang in Children's Hospital LA.

Assistant Editor

Barry Lank has worked for newspapers on the East and West Coasts, and earned an MS in journalism from Columbia University. He formerly produced "National Lampoon Presents: The Final Edition." A native of San Gabriel Valley, he now lives in East Hollywood.

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