A historic — and some say haunted — Los Angeles hospital that has been closed for two decades is set to be converted into apartments for low-income seniors in a $40-million makeover.
Linda Vista Community Hospital is an imposing relic from the days when railroads took care of their sick and injured employees in company facilities. Originally known as Santa Fe Coast Lines Hospital, it was built for employees of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in Boyle Heights, a blue-collar neighborhood east of the city's rail yards and home to many railroad workers.
The original hospital opened in 1905. It was razed and rebuilt on the same site in the mid-1920s, and additions were made through 1939.
Although the hospital closed in 1991, the six-story complex survives with its dignity mostly intact — with peeling paint and roosting pigeons adding to tales of sudden chilly drafts and paranormal activity inside.
Hallways are wide with coved ceilings intended to evoke the inside of a railroad caboose. Former staff dining halls and patient rooms are outfitted in colorful Santa Fe tile. The white concrete edifice commands a sloping four-acre site on St. Louis Street overlooking Hollenbeck Park and the downtown Los Angeles skyline.
"It has such a presence sitting on that big lawn," said Wade Killefer, the architect overseeing the hospital's conversion.
Renovation is set to begin next month in an adjacent structure. The challenge, he said, "is the same as it is with every great historic building: how not to screw it up."
The steward of Linda Vista's comeback is Amcal Multi-Housing Inc., an affordable housing developer in Agoura Hills. It expects to succeed where previous efforts to convert Linda Vista to residential use fell short, including a pre-housing-crash plan to turn it into condominiums. One big hurdle is the need to remove hazardous lead and asbestos at a cost of about $4 million.
"A lot of things came together" for Amcal, Chief Executive Percival Vaz said. Among them was a grant of $9 million in federal funds intended to stabilize neighborhoods through the revitalization of abandoned properties.
And Linda Vista is a lulu of an abandoned property.
Visitors come across stray medical equipment such as dusty baby incubators and gleaming stainless steel autopsy tables. A corner of the basement holds what appears to be a cluster of jail cells.
The rooms are unnerving, but the atmosphere is intentional.
That's because Linda Vista is one of L.A.'s most popular filming locations. It was daunting enough to stand in for a squalid mental asylum in a Duran Duran music video, and it has been the subject of televised paranormal investigations.
Caretaker Francis Kortekaas brought in medical equipment and made the mock jail to enhance its appeal to directors. Sometimes filmmakers leave props behind, like the wooden throne from the upcoming Rob Zombie movie "The Lords of Salem" that commands one room.
It can be hard to tell what's real and what's Hollywood flimflam. The former main dining room looks like a chapel because it was redecorated for the 2005 remake of the movie "The Longest Yard," starring Adam Sandler.
Faded bed curtains in a jumbled pile on the floor of a patient room? Real artifacts. Dangerously drooping electrical conduit in the former laundry room? Recent props from an episode of "True Blood," where the hospital portrayed a mental asylum.
Makers of the HBO series about vampires also filmed live wolves running through Linda Vista's lobby, Kortekaas said. Filming takes place in Linda Vista as much as 130 days a year, he said, which helps pay for maintenance.
Some of the projects are upbeat, such as the pilot episode of "ER" and hospital scenes from the 2001 movie "Pearl Harbor." Often, though, Linda Vista serves as the backdrop for slasher tales and other dark fare, such as the 1995 murder-thriller, "Se7en."
Television shows that follow ghost hunters also have spent nights at Linda Vista, and the makers of a documentary-style show called "From Beyond" said the hospital was "home to the team's most haunting night ever," with crew members hearing voices and being grabbed and scratched.
"People tell me it's the most haunted place in L.A.," said Maurice Ramirez, executive vice president of Amcal. "Because it's been empty for maybe 25 years or so, it becomes the subject of a little urban folklore about ghosts and things."
Kortekaas, who has spent more time in the hospital than anyone else over the last several years, acknowledged a couple of incidents he can't explain.
In the dimly lighted underground level housing the operating rooms, Kortekaas said he once saw the water turn on when he approached a sink where doctors scrubbed before surgery. Then the water, which is controlled by a leg-operated lever, turned off.
On another occasion, he sensed a small child putting a hand in his — but no one was there. "It felt like my daughter's hand," he said.
Next month, Amcal plans to start converting Linda Vista's nurses' residences into 23 senior apartments. The separate three-story building has a cozy living room with a fireplace and is connected to the hospital by a short tunnel.
"We're just remodeling it a little" to add bathrooms and small kitchens, Ramirez said. "The historic character will be maintained."
Starting early next year, the upper five floors of the hospital building will be converted to 74 apartments, most of them one-bedroom units for people ages 55 or older whose annual incomes are $16,000 to $25,000, the criteria for subsidized housing eligibility in Los Angeles. Construction is expected to take 14 months.
Improvements will include new landscaping and the addition of reflecting pools to soften the hospital's institutional appearance in front.
"It's going to look like an upscale hotel," Ramirez said. "People in the neighborhood will really see a transformation."
Linda Vista is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a city historical monument, said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy.
"It was the precursor of medical services connected to employment," she said.
Applications for units at Linda Vista will be accepted this summer, Amcal said.