Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services has served the people of Southern California for well over a century. The organization grew from a very small Jewish orphanage in 1908 to its current network of state-of-the-art services spanning mental health, education, adoption, autism spectrum outreach, early intervention programs, and more for people of all faiths and backgrounds.
Vista Del Mar has changed as the community around it has changed, yet has always strived to meet people where they are, and to provide what they need with understanding and compassion.
A haven for Jewish orphans
It started with a dream of safety.
By the first years of the 20th century, millions of Jews were desperate to escape the antisemitic pogroms in Eastern Europe. Those who were lucky found their way to America. But even in this land of relative security, newcomers were crowded into dank tenement apartments where polio, tuberculosis, and other deadly diseases often ran rampant. Those who could move farther west hoped to find in those then-wide-open spaces the climate that would provide a cure.
When many of the adults newly arrived in Southern California still died of these illnesses, their surviving children were left without refuge or care.
Enter Sigfried Marshutz.
The German-born Marshutz was an accomplished optometrist and a leader in the B’nai B’rith Lodge #487 in Los Angeles. He and his fellow members worried about the fate of these Jewish orphans, many of whom could be found living on the streets. In 1908, they opened the doors of the Jewish Orphans Home of Southern California in an old mansion formerly owned by wine merchant Alfred Stern. Marshutz served as president until 1914.
After a fire destroyed this first building (fortunately without injury to the children), the orphanage relocated to, first, a boardinghouse near Hollenbeck Park, before designing its own buildings based on modern ideas about child development.
A new standard of care
In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt led a White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, which promoted the value of an enriched, loving, homelike atmosphere for any children in institutional care. The conference urged adults in charge of creating group housing for children to model their buildings on the “cottage plan.” And in 1912, President William Howard Taft’s administration established the Children’s Bureau, the first federal agency providing up-to-date professional guidance on the wellbeing of children and families.
Within this atmosphere, Marshutz and his team built a new home for the children in their care on 10 acres in Huntington Park, at the intersection of Miles (then Irvington) and Gage Streets. The fresh, contemporary look of the cottage homes was revolutionary in 1912, offering a stark contrast to the typical orphanages that crowded numerous children into a single building.
In these cottages, sibling groups stayed together whenever possible. All children in a cottage lived under the supervision of a “house mother,” who taught them to prepare meals, clean, and care for their home just as if they lived in a traditional family. Their own cows and hens supplied the children with fresh milk and eggs daily.
A ranch with some famous neighbors
By 1925, the orphanage had moved to expansive new quarters at Vista Del Mar in West Los Angeles, with five two-story cottage homes for the children, as well as a ranch house and a barn amid more than 20 acres of rolling hills.
The new site was also close to the studios of 20th Century Fox and MGM Studios; a connection to Hollywood was also forged when director George Cukor and producer Louis B. Mayer joined the board of the organization. The children enjoyed movie screenings, donations of costumes, and Hanukkah presents courtesy of these connections. Moreover, it was the film community’s support that helped the orphanage survive the Great Depression relatively intact.
Facing new traumas
The dark days of World War II and the Holocaust saw a flood of new arrivals at the orphanage: Jewish child refugees from Nazi Germany. After the war, displaced children whose parents had perished in the fighting or the concentration camps continued to join the Vista Del Mar family.
It was then that superintendent Joseph Bonapart, a teacher with advanced degrees in psychology and sociology, noticed many of his newer orphans arriving with severe emotional and behavioral conditions with a variety of causes. So, in the 1950s, Vista Del Mar began focusing on caring for these traumatized youth, building a special treatment cottage directed by well-trained psychiatric and teaching staff.
An updated campus for a growing mission
The 1970s saw the development of Vista Del Mar’s own school to serve its children unable to attend public schools. The ‘70s and ‘80s were also the era of extensive renovations to construct modernized “cluster cottages,” even as Vista Del Mar further developed its focus on serving youth with developmental disabilities and other special needs. Mergers with the Reiss David Child Study Center and other progressive local agencies supported this growth, bringing in a burst of new expertise in child development, counseling, and mental health services.
In the century since Vista Del Mar’s founding, tuberculosis, polio, and orphanages have faded into history. As it has changed with the times, the organization has expanded both its reach and its heart, and continues as one of the Los Angeles area’s most beloved and valued service providers.