Sitting abandoned since the 1980’s, the L.A. County Poor Farm, later known as Rancho Los Amigos in Downy, CA was a place of refuge for the destitute, the infirm, the addicted, and the elderly.
The Farm got its start in 1887 when the county purchased 124.4 acres within the city limits of where Downy, CA is presently located.
The buildings were built in a U-shaped design with a central courtyard separating female living areas on the north, male quarters on the south and a dining hall at one end.
The farm’s first residents arrived in December 1888. As the population increased, the farm quickly expanded to 227 acres.
A 1902 story in The Times described the place as “wrapped in sunbeams and wreathed with flower gardens.” “The Los Angeles County Poor Farm visibly resents the incongruity of it name,” the story said. “The delightful innovation of housing the homeless and unfortunate in such environments belongs exclusively to Southern California, for no other part of America bears record of having done likewise.” The Times’ account explained that the farm operated with an eye toward being self-sustaining, not profit-oriented. “There is no intention of going into extensive agriculture for financial profit because such an arrangement would bring pauper labor into competition with the farmers,” it stated.
The farm raised $10,061 in 1901 but the operating costs that year totaled $32,914. Hardy self-sustaining.
Male residents lived in immense dorms with as many as 30 beds along the walls.
By 1910, the Poor Farm had grown into nearly 400 acres.
It was renamed “Sunny Acres” in 1931 and its farming operations were shut down after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s social welfare programs kicked in.
The place operated as the Rancho Los Amigos hospital for chronic illnesses until the 1950s, when a polio epidemic turned it into a rehabilitation center. The southern campus of the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital is often referred to as the “Hollydale Mental Hospital” or the “Downey Insane Asylum” in contemporary times, however these misnomers paint an incorrect picture of the hospital’s past use, which was much broader than just caring for the mentally ill.
Built in 1888 as a catch-all institution for the LA County Medical Center; it was the place where the handicapped, homeless, insane and elderly in the county were cared for. Funded by county bond money, it was simply called the County Poor Farm. Here, able-bodied residents could work on a large farm which sustained most of the hospital’s dietary needs, in lieu of paying for room and board and medical care.
The tenants during this time were typically the homeless who drank too often, and just needed a few sober weeks of manual labor on the farm.
In 1918, the Spanish influenza epidemic hit the area, and the facility began treating all victims rather than just the indigent. The word “Poor” was eventually dropped from the name of the facility.
The hospital expanded greatly in the 1920s which lead to the construction of the Spanish Colonial Revival buildings seen today.
In 1932, the name of the institution was changed once again to Rancho Los Amigos, which translates to “Ranch of the Friends.”
During World War II, the U.S. Army turned part of the hospital grounds into Camp Morrow. After the war was over it became a long-term care facility for victims of polio.
By the late 1950s, the farm, dairy, and mental health wards had closed, and most of the 600-acre property was divided and sold. Rancho continued to operate as a modern chronic-disease hospital, and later, as a world-renowned rehabilitation center. All these operations were consolidated and moved to Rancho’s north campus, a 62-acre hospital site that still operates today. The 70-acre south campus didn’t fare so well and is now a ghost town.
The U.S. Marine Corps occasionally used the south campus to perform military training drills. During one of the exercises, troops opened a freezer in a former pathology building and discovered a package full of mummified body parts. The coroner’s office identified 10 legs, feet and brain matter, and determined that these were amputated medical specimens, rather than the result of foul play.
Redevelopment plans for the south campus have languished for the most part, but a few buildings have been re-purposed. The city of Downy uses some of the buildings for staging, building and storing their annual Rose Parade float entries.
Asbestos, lead paint, mold and animal feces are just a few of the things one would encounter if they attempted to enter any of the sealed off buildings. Don’t feed the cats!!!!
Yeah right, cats rule this land and rumor has it that the interiors of most of these buildings are infested with fleas.
Since I wasn’t going to attempt to get into the Art Deco auditorium/theater, I did a little digging and found somebody who did. – Photo Credit: Tom Kirsch