A crew member is silhouetted against the exterior of Linda Vista Community… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
The iron chain falls with a clang as the old man steps into the dark, deserted hallway of Linda Vista Community Hospital. Lights flicker and a stench of mold hangs in the air. Down the main corridor, a lone metal gurney rests against a wall.
More than a century ago, the six-story building in Boyle Heights opened to much fanfare as Santa Fe Coast Lines Hospital. The Mission-style building -- with verandas, a dome tower and sweeping views of downtown Los Angeles -- catered to railroad workers across the Southwest. Patients were cared for by a surgeon who once tended to Howard Hughes; they drank fresh milk from the hospital's own Jersey cows.
They were brought into the lobby in wheelchairs, taken up an elevator operated by the simple pressing of a button and delivered to a heated room that could swiftly be evacuated by automatic fire escape.
"So complete and unique are the automatic features of the new hospital that it will not be strange if all who enter therein for treatment are healed automatically,"announced a 1904 newspaper article.
Now the wheelchairs are gone, the elevators broken. The heating-and-cooling system hasn't worked for 16 years. Jesus Mena walks the halls alone -- flashlight in hand, keys clinking on his leg -- like an orderly making his final rounds. The 73-year-old watches over a building that in less than two decades went from community hub to haunted house.
Rumors of ghosts attract intruders almost nightly. They smash padlocks, break windows and knock down doors to slip in and rattle one another's nerves.
People say they see things: A little girl cries for help from the fifth floor; a doctor roams from north to south inside a corridor; a green light radiates after dark from some of the windows.
But nothing is really as it seems inside Linda Vista: not the steely morgue at the end of the maze-like corridor, not the sound of humming in the room next door, not the tiny footprints running in a circle on the floor.
End of the line
It used to be the entrance was lush, lined with flowers and palm trees, and the hospital on the hill was a place for nursing people back to life, not for searching out the dead. Railroad workers with tuberculosis were cared for in furnished, heated tents on the hospital grounds. Conductors and engineers whose limbs had been crushed under moving boxcars recovered from amputations while enjoying picturesque views of Hollenbeck Park.
The worst cases were rushed to the burgundy-and-yellow-tiled trauma room. And those who died went to the hospital's own morgue, underneath the dining hall on the first floor.
"It was really quite sophisticated," said Ken Bernstein, manager of Los Angeles' Office of Historic Resources.
"Here you had an integrated healthcare system providing for its employees well before most labor unions had won those types of health benefits."
But in the 1970s, people began complaining that the 150-bed hospital was too exclusive, that it poorly served the area's growing Latino population. In 1981, the railroad sold the hospital to a corporation.
Meanwhile, a drop in Medicare reimbursements began to hit the hospital hard. In 1989, the emergency room closed. In 1991, the hospital shut down altogether. The building's value dropped from about $10 million to less than $4 million.
"Once that occurred, it just became an empty shell," said Francis Kortekaas, who has managed the property for 22 years.
More than half a dozen owners have taken over Linda Vista since then. The investors come in with grand ideas: a new hospital, a charter school, a rehab center, a senior home or lofts.
But the obstacles to reviving the grand stucco building have defeated one dreamer after another.
When one owner suggested developing the land in 2002, a former tenant intervened, afraid the structure would be razed. She succeeded in getting the hospital placed on the city's list of historic-cultural monuments. Later, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The "historic" designation has trapped the property in a sort of purgatory, Kortekaas said, since developers don't want to invest in a property with such a restriction. The site is also not earthquake-safe.
"They take notice a lot but just walk away," he said.
The property remains for sale, but no one is rushing to make an offer.
The Spanish tile roof, the caboose-inspired hallways, the Art Deco ceramic floors: Kortekaas didn't want those charming details forgotten when Linda Vista shut down in 1991.
So he decided to call on Hollywood. The manager began to market the grounds as a film location. Soon, production managers from TV shows and movies big and small began to call: "Outbreak," "End of Days," the pilot season of "ER," "Pearl Harbor."
Crews turned neglected patient rooms and corridors into jail cells, chapels, classrooms and lofts, then insane asylums and interrogation rooms, then science labs and party scenes. They left behind props: cages, jars full of faux organs, church pews, phantom masks.