A Haven for Children in L.A. Closes After 125 Years

Times Staff Writer

Marilyn Monroe spent some of her most important Hollywood nights in its safe embrace. So did about 20,000 others.

Now, though, the last young resident has packed his bags and moved. Los Angeles’ original orphanage is shutting its cottage doors after 125 years of housing children whose families have all but given up on them.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 23, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Hollygrove programs -- A headline on Tuesday’s Page A1 implied that the Hollygrove Children and Family Services organization was shutting down. Although the 125-year-old residential orphanage for young children has closed, Hollygrove is continuing to serve children in a number of programs operating from the same site in Hollywood. Those include therapeutic behavior services, family preservation, medical support, foster family care and outpatient counseling.

Without fanfare, the venerable privately run Hollygrove children’s residential treatment center has closed. It is a victim of a changing philosophy about the treatment for youngsters who are abused, addicted or abandoned.

Orphanages have fallen out of fashion in Los Angeles and across the United States as social services organizations work to move kids from group facilities to foster homes or the homes of members of their extended families or family friends.

As recently as the mid-1990s, more than 3,500 children lived in group facilities in Los Angeles County. About 340 remain. That number is steadily declining as children are placed with relatives or friends. At least 70 group homes across the county have closed in the last decade.


“We don’t think children ages 6 to 12 should be under institutional care,” said Lisa Parrish, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

But some supporters of Hollygrove contend that the quiet closure marks an inglorious end to a community service that began when two women commandeered a horse and buggy to rescue abandoned waifs from the dusty streets of 19th-century Los Angeles.

“Oh my goodness ... it’s very sad. It was a wonderful, wonderful place,” said Signe Van Hoeven, a 100-year-old Rialto resident who lived at Hollygrove for six years from 1915 to 1921. She fondly remembers the names of the home’s matrons and teachers who cared for her.


Founded in 1880 as the Los Angeles Orphans Home Society, the children’s shelter stood in what is now Chinatown before relocating to Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe would eventually become its most famous alumna.

Norma Jean Baker was 9 in 1935 when she was brought to the orphanage by an aunt. She lived in a girls residence hall whose windows overlooked Paramount Studios and framed its landmark water tower.

“There are probably 40 books that talk about her time here, and each has a different story,” said Judith Nelson, president and chief executive officer of Hollygrove. “One book says she cleaned 100 toilets here. Of course, there have never been 100 toilets here to clean.”

Monroe’s mother was mentally ill and unable to care for her. “She was like a lot of kids here at the time. They didn’t want to be called orphans because they really weren’t.”

Hollygrove had begun to shift into a refuge for children with parents who were alive but unable to care for them. So its name was changed in 1957 to the Hollygrove Home for Children, to the relief of Monroe -- who made three return visits in the ‘50s. She signed the guest book as “Norma Jean Baker” on her first trip but used her working name for the other two, Nelson said.

A hallway museum depicts Monroe’s stay as well as the long history of the orphanage. It starts with the roundup of so-called “street urchins” by Mrs. Dan Stephens and Mrs. Frank Gibson -- as women were identified in the custom of the day.

“At the beginning, most of the kids who came here to live didn’t have parents. Their parents might have died from disease,” Nelson said.

The hallway timeline includes photographs from the early 1880s showing young black and brown faces along with white ones. One series of photos shows the open Hollywood farmland shortly after it was donated to the orphanage in 1910 by a man identified in the display as Sen. Cornelius Cole. Eventually, the state provided some money for orphans.

However, a Los Angeles Times report published in 1908 identified the land donor as Charles M. Stinson. The paper reported that the parcel, which then totaled five acres, was valued at $15,000.

“There is such an opportunity to make good men and women of them,” Stinson was quoted as saying of the orphans. “Many of the poor little fellows have never had a good home or known a parent’s care.”

Through the 1950s, Hollygrove was known for its annual “fill the larder” food drives.

In recent years, fundraising has been more organized. Private donations have made up 20% to 25% of Hollygrove’s annual operating budget of about $11.5 million. The remainder has come from the county departments of Children and Family Services and Mental Health, Nelson said.

Hollygrove today retains the vintage look of its Marilyn Monroe days. It covers a city block near Vine Street and Melrose Avenue, a cluster of “cottages” where the children lived, along with a cafeteria, dining room, library, administrative building, playground and pool. It sits one block west of Paramount Studios, and the Paramount water tower still looms over the grounds.

For the past decade, most of Hollygrove’s young residents, who ranged from 6 to 12 years old, were abuse victims who had rotated in and out of foster homes before county authorities placed them in group homes. There are few children now who do not have at least one relative who is suitable to take them in.

Martine Singer, Hollygrove’s chief operating officer, said Los Angeles County began moving away from the use of group homes for young children in 2003, when greater effort was made to reunite youngsters with distant relatives. The county has placed all but 10 of the Hollygrove youngsters in private homes, with members of their extended families or family friends. The remaining children have been reassigned to other group homes.

The last child to leave, a 9-year-old boy sent to live in Texas with his recently located father, moved out Sept. 2.

Nearly two-thirds of Hollygrove’s 205 staff members, who were caring for 68 preteen residents, have been let go.

Parrish, the county children’s services official, said the dispersal of Hollygrove youngsters “was very traumatic” for some of them, but she said it was ultimately for the best.

Hollygrove officials are now scrambling to save remnants of their treatment program and preserve the center’s longtime home.

Nelson and Singer said Hollygrove plans to merge April 1 with a company based in the Bay Area town of Campbell. Details of the merger with EMQ Children & Family Services are still being worked out. That agency serves about 5,600 children in Northern California.

Darrell Evora, president of EMQ, said there were no plans to redevelop Hollygrove’s valuable, 3 1/2 -acre site.

Singer said the preservation of the Hollywood property has been a major issue for her organization. “We’re the only green space for miles,” Nelson added.

For now, a two-week “Camp Hollygrove” child-care program for Hollywood-area children, as well as for foster-care youngsters, is being planned for this week and next. Nelson said the potential for creating a charter school on the Hollygrove grounds is also being explored, and late last week grants were obtained to begin an after-school program there.

Nelson acknowledged that the shutdown of the 125-year-old residential program has left many longtime supporters “shocked and angry.”

In a letter to financial donors and other backers, she has urged them to continue supporting Hollygrove with cash, gifts and volunteer work.

“Although there are many changes, Hollygrove’s name and mission to serve abused, neglected and seriously emotionally disturbed children remain,” Nelson said.