County General Hospital’s Building Deserves New Life

John Hisserich, associate vice president for health affairs at USC, was chairman of the Community Plan Advisory Committee for Northeast Los Angeles.

Now that the framework for the new Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center is nearly complete, Los Angeles must turn its attention to how best to use the existing landmark hospital building.

County General opened in 1933 and will be vacated shortly after the completion of the new medical center in early 2007. This means that approximately 1 million square feet of space will become available. Although modern healthcare requirements and seismic regulations preclude its continued use as a patient-care facility, its basic structural integrity and noteworthy architectural features cry out for adaptation for productive reuse.

Designed by a group of the leading architects of the time and built at cost of more than $11 million, the 19-story Moderne style structure dominates the Eastside skyline above two major freeways. Its distinctive facade, which has become famous as the exterior of “General Hospital” on the television soap opera of the same name, was decorated by S. Cartaino Scarpitta, a well-known sculptor, and just inside the entry are works by noted muralist Henry Ballin.

Beyond the inherent worth of preserving the building, however, is the potential for it to become a thriving hub for addressing unmet needs in the Eastside community. Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, nearby El Sereno and, indeed, all of Los Angeles could benefit greatly from proper planning and community input into determining the best use of this grand building.


The Community Redevelopment Agency is in a position to be a catalyst on such a project. The Los Angeles Conservancy and the National Trust for Historic Preservation might well have interest in saving the historic building.

One has to look less than a mile from the hospital to see how a former brewery and power plant have been creatively reused to house one of the nation’s largest groups of artists in a live-work setting. There are a multitude of possibilities for this wonderful old building, including:

* a combination of condominium and apartment housing that could accommodate employees of the proposed biomedical industry park under consideration for the area, as well as for the hundreds of physicians-in-training, nurses and others at the medical center and nearby USC Health Sciences Campus;

* complementary commercial space, such as a community shopping center or indoor mall;


* affordable housing for seniors and low-income families;

* a much-needed middle school;

* incubator space for start-up businesses;

* a community or cultural center or a new home for a Latino museum.

Given the possible uses and the sheer size of the facility, the best use will no doubt be some combination of these and other ideas. Planning should begin now. It would be a shame if it languished as an abandoned building or became the largest storage facility on the West Coast.

Let’s urge Los Angeles’ political, economic development, architectural and community leadership to seize this opportunity to readapt County General, which for 70 years has symbolized hope and a safe harbor for the Eastside community and for all of Los Angeles.