Having a vision for an old site

On the days when George Atkinson loads his clubs into his white Corvette and heads to the Rio Hondo Golf Club, he takes a shortcut that takes him back in time 100 years.

“This,” he says of the sturdy, tree-shaded buildings that sit abandoned in the middle of what once was thriving agricultural and pasture land in Downey, “was the L.A. County Poor Farm.”

The 64-year-old Bellflower real estate broker thinks about the place every time he drives past. And he thinks about it every time he sees a homeless person curled up in a doorway, camped in foliage near a freeway or living in a tent on a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk.


“This place is something that can easily be refurbished and used to house the homeless,” he said. “I’ve written and emailed everybody I can think of to tell them that.”

So far, Atkinson has gotten no response from any of the politicians.

A Republican who believes people should work for a living, Atkinson said he is generally put off by individuals looking for a handout. “But these stories about people who are just down on their luck and have no place to go rip at my heart.”

The Poor Farm got its start in 1887 when the county purchased 124.4 acres and hired the team of architects who had designed the Pico House in the Olvera Street area, St. Vibiana Cathedral and USC’s Widney Hall.

They came up with a U-shaped design with a central courtyard separating female living areas on the north, male quarters on the south and a dining building at one end.

The farm’s first residents arrived by horse-drawn wagon in December 1888. During the 1890s, the population grew from 125 to about 200 indigents, most over age 60. The farm quickly expanded to 227 acres.

In its day, the county Poor Farm was an anomaly. 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.

Still, the farm raised $10,061 in 1901 from the sale of oranges, livestock and dairy products, the report said. Operating costs that year totaled $32,914 -- or about 341/2 cents per day for each of the farm’s residents.

The story described male residents’ living quarters as “immense,” with as many as 30 beds along the walls. Three men’s wards opened to a central courtyard, and each resident was provided with bedding, a chair and a small bed stand. There was a large reading room filled with several hundred books “for those who can read,” the story reported. Another building housed female residents.

By 1910, the Poor Farm covered nearly 400 acres.

A Times report that year described the farm’s four main brick buildings as being shaded by evergreens and palms. “At first glance the place might be thought a comfortable, old-fashioned country mansion.” The paper noted that the farm’s newest building -- “the insane ward” -- was a one-story structure that housed 25 “harmless” patients.

The Poor Farm was renamed “Sunny Acres” in 1931 by officials seeking a “less odious name,” as one county supervisor put it. The farming operation was phased out in the ‘30s when 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.

Today, the farm’s remaining 212 acres are split in two by Imperial Highway.

The Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, one of the country’s top spinal injury and stroke treatment facilities, is on 48 acres north of the highway. To the south, much of the remaining 164 acres has been redeveloped, although the actual Poor Farm structures remain -- at least for now.

The Poor Farm property, known to some as the Rancho Los Amigos “south campus,” is tentatively planned to become the site of a county office building, according to county analyst Hannah Chen.

Although those plans are probably several years off, the remaining buildings are so old that they’re now unsafe to even enter.

“But you see something like this sitting vacant and it breaks your heart. I don’t think it’s impossible to make this into a habitable place again,” Atkinson said. “We already have this built and paid for.”