In its 11 decades, an amazing range of people have called it home: turn-of-the century debutantes; science fiction guru and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard; an evangelist with a mission of her own.
It has served as a kindergarten, a finishing school, an elegant hotel, an Army barracks, a showplace for USO shows and, finally, as Los Angeles’ first shelter for homeless women.
The Sunshine Mission-Casa de Rosas, which stands at the southeast corner of Hoover Street and Adams Boulevard in North University Park, began its life in the 19th century as it is doing in the 21st century: educating women.
When it was built in 1892, it was known as the Froebel Institute, part of the “kindergarten movement” to train teachers to instruct young children using such ordinary objects as blocks and drawings. Nearly 60 years later, it would begin its current role, educating women with histories of prostitution and drug, alcohol and domestic abuse to the ways of productive and independent living.
The woman who gave the Sunshine Mission its start in 1941 was Essie Binkley West, the so-called “Angel of Skid Row.” Her first efforts at theatrical and spiritual showmanship -- as well as saving lives and souls -- began in the 1920s, when she worked for flamboyant evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
During the Roaring Twenties, West was a young woman who could play almost any instrument and who possessed what the papers called “a golden voice.” Sister Aimee recruited her to the newly built Angelus Temple in Echo Park, where West, wearing a white robe, played the trumpet and organ and encouraged Sister Aimee’s spectacles.
Sister Aimee used Hollywood stage props and movie-star flair to draw thousands to her temple, where she sometimes sat on a throne. When she needed accompaniment, it was West who added her own sweet voice and the music from the temple’s 30-foot-high pipe organ.
Sister Aimee’s showmanship extended to stunts such as the incident after she was stopped for speeding in her Echo Park neighborhood. Not long thereafter, uniformed as a cop, she roared onstage on a motorcycle and cried to the faithful, “Stop! You’re speeding to ruin.”
But by the 1930s, disillusioned with scandals surrounding Sister Aimee, West opened her own home in Glendale to unwed mothers and took her own charismatic skills to the streets of skid row, where she preached on the pavement.
Through more than two decades thereafter, West became a skid row living landmark, playing her trumpet through downtown streets and stopping in bars to preach and pass the hat.
In 1940, she and her husband, Wilfred, sold a Glendale newspaper that he had founded and bought the First Church of the Nazarene, as well as a three-story apartment building next door, at 6th and Wall streets. Here, they opened the Old Time Faith Church and Sunshine Mission, the city’s first shelter exclusively for homeless women. West reached out to the neighborhood and to those who “courted the companionship of the devil.”
Each Thanksgiving, beginning in 1941, she would cook and serve thousands of turkey dinners. At Christmastime, she would put on a Santa suit and pass out toys to the children.
Although she was neither as famous nor as flamboyant as Sister Aimee, West did sing and shout from her pulpit. She also told of her prophetic dreams about salvation and her desperate late-night conversations with the Lord.
“I went out into this new field of service without a promise of any salary or financial aid ... and the Lord said to me: ‘You will be tired and come to your last dollar many a time, but you will not be forsaken.’ ”
Her Saturday night radio program, “Sunshine Broadcast,” drew hundreds of thousands of listeners. When she wasn’t preaching or home with her husband, she stayed at the mission, walking a homeless woman’s colicky baby or changing diapers.
By 1949, the cheap rents she collected from the apartment building next door were not enough to finance her programs. Neither were contributions sent by faithful radio listeners and subscribers to her monthly newsletter, “Christian Journal.” So West mortgaged her Glendale home and paid $75,000 for an abandoned 40-acre Army base in Riverside. With the help of her skid row congregation, she refurbished the buildings and opened “Girls Town,” modeled after Father Edward Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska.
“I want to show the world that there is no such thing as a bad girl,” West said in a newspaper story. “I may have been gambling with my money, but I wasn’t gambling on the girls.”
Girls Town eventually became Paradise Valley Christian School and was sold in the 1970s, after her death. (Her husband died in the 1950s.)
In 1950, before the city condemned the dilapidated Old Time Faith Church, she went looking for new property. She bought the Froebel Institute and transferred the name “Sunshine Mission” to it.
The 25-room Mission Revival-style building had been vacant since future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and some of his students moved out. Hubbard was just scratching out a living in 1950 when he published “Dianetics,” which would form the basis of Scientology and sell more than 17 million copies.
The building was designed in 1892 by architect Sumner P. Hunt, who also designed the Automobile Club of Southern California a few blocks away and the Mission Inn in Riverside.
The Froebel Institute theories, with their emphasis on teaching children forms and shapes, would catch the attention of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who said that, as a child, he built his first building from a set of Froebel blocks.
From early on, the building was also known as Casa de Rosas for the trailing roses that grew over its walls and in its courtyard, earning it a place in old L.A. guidebooks.
The building was nearly destroyed by fire three times, beginning in 1903. It was rebuilt the next year, and dormitories and a ballroom were added to turn it into the Girls Collegiate Boarding School. By the 1930s, it had become a hotel-restaurant, where USC’s international students lived, and by World War II, it housed soldiers. The USO put on shows and dances there.
After West bought the place, she divided her time between the Girls Town project in Riverside and the Sunshine Mission.
But in 1975, after 35 years of operating the mission at its two locations, West had to close because of fire- and safety-code violations. She prayed that someone would come to the rescue with the $50,000 needed to bring it up to standards.
“God will see it through,” she said. But that didn’t happen in her lifetime.
She died in 1976, in her bedroom at the mission. A year later, her prayers were answered. A retired reporter named Joseph “Sparky” Saldana, who spent 21 years with the old Los Angeles Daily News and who was a writer and editor of West’s “Christian Journal,” became her executor.
Determined to reopen the mission in her memory, he brought in family and friends to help fix it up. It reopened in 1980, thanks to hundreds of USC student volunteers armed with paint, brushes and rollers.
In 1981, the complex of 55 one-room apartments and another 20 shelter beds was designated a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Landmark.
But life at the born-again mission was challenging. In 1984, an arson fire gutted 16 of its 42 hotel rooms. The mission was just struggling back from that ruinous blaze when an arsonist struck again in 1987, two days before Christmas.
Even today, the ballroom smells of charred wood. But earlier this year, Sunshine Mission-Casa de Rosas received a $20,000 Preserve L.A. gift from the Getty Grant Program to restore the room to its original glory, with its floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace.
There’s no portrait or plaque to remind visitors of the role West played in the city, only a dusty cardboard box stuffed with photographs, awards and newspaper clippings. But there’s something more ethereal here, said Sunshine Mission executive director Stephen Knight:
“Sometimes in the early hours of the morning, when I’m stressed and working late, I feel this sense of calm and peacefulness come over me. And I know it’s the spirit of Sister Essie.”