The History of How UCLA Came To Be

A century ago, in the first days of what would be UCLA as we know it, the founding class took on the responsibility to build a foundation for a university that would stand the test of time. The inaugural yearbook notes, “In ten years, or in twenty, we shall look with amazement upon its development, for it is certain to be greater, far greater, than the imagination of any of us can foresee.” UCLA Panorama The history of UCLA tells the story of Los Angeles as it grew from citrus groves and wide open spaces, the individuals who have strived for the best in education for all Californians and the ongoing drive to create a legacy of lasting value.
A Growing City
In 1850, California became the 30th state and early innovations during these industrious years added to the Southland’s development — railroads made cross-country travel and trade affordable and relatively easy, Edward Doheny discovered oil at Greasy Gulch and water flowed to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley through engineer William Mulholland’s aqueduct. Los Angeles’ balmy climate, plentiful natural resources and wealth of opportunity saw the population rise from an estimated 100,000 in 1900 to over one million by the 1920s.
The University of California was established in 1868, with the first campus at Berkeley. The university is included in California’s Constitution as a public trust, “independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its regents and in the administration of its affairs." A governing body was established, the Regents of the University of California, giving them autonomy over university management.
By the early 1900s Los Angeles was a diverse and engaging place to live — home to museums, movie studios and a symphony orchestra, one of the first in the country. The city’s public school system was established in the 1850s and the city’s first college in 1865, with the expanding population creating an ongoing and critical need for more trained teachers. After an active campaign by local Angelenos, in 1881 Governor George C. Perkins signed California Senate Bill 187 into law creating the Branch State Normal School of California in Los Angeles. Normal school was the term commonly used for an institution that educated teachers.
Normal School - Grand and Fifth
Grand & 5th Street Campus
Angelenos raised the money to buy land on what is now the site of the Central Library, and the school opened in 1882. Graduates, in turn, educated the next generation of Angelenos. Alumni Bessie Bruington Burke (Normal School ’11), became the first African American to teach in Los Angeles public schools, and later the city's first African American school principal. In 1914 the school, now independent and called Los Angeles State Normal School, moved to a new campus on the 800 block of Vermont Avenue in Hollywood, now the site of Los Angeles City College.
The Southern Branch
Edward A. Dickson
Edward A. Dickson
As Los Angeles, and all of Southern California, continued to grow in size and spirit, its residents began advocating for a local branch of the Berkeley-based University of California. Edward A. Dickson, newspaper publisher and the first Southern Californian on the UC Board of Regents, met with his former professor and president of the Normal School, Ernest Moore for lunch at the Jonathan Club in downtown Los Angeles.
Ernest Moore
Ernest Moore
The pair envisioned transforming the Normal School into a thriving branch of the University of California. However, influential university leadership, protective of Berkeley’s resources and reputation, resisted the idea of expansion. But the Southland continued to advocate for growth. Residents even considered creating a separate state institution. At last, after much debate, university president Benjamin Wheeler agreed to the expansion plan. Assembly Bill 626 was signed into law on May 23, 1919 by Governor William D. Stephens, creating the Southern Branch of the University of California.
Vermont Campus
Vermont Avenue Campus
The Southern Branch opened on the Vermont Avenue site of the Normal School on Sept. 15, 1919 under the direction of scholar, teacher and philosopher Moore. The school was home to more than 1,500 students in all, with a two-year undergraduate program, a teacher training program and a program for injured veterans of WWI called the “Federal Class.”
These early Bruins, although they wouldn’t be called so for a few more years, welcomed their role as founders. The yearbook describes the mood of excitement and anticipation, “When the doors were unlocked upon the morning of September 15th, and students once more flooded the halls after a long summer vacation, it was not upon the Los Angeles State Normal School which they had left in June that their gaze fell, but upon The Southern Branch of the University of California. The beautiful buildings and charming grounds surrounding assumed a new glamour which those who entered after June, 1919, will never comprehend. They were enhanced and glorified to meet the new and welcome responsibilities which naturally followed.”
Cub Californian Staff
The Cub Californian Staff
Equal to their determination to build a top notch school, this first class also welcomed the chance to build a strong community. As their 1920 yearbook recalls, “With the lapse of time and the growth and development of our Alma Mater the splendid California spirit will find an effective voice and, moreover, will find it through the organizations.” Leadership, faculty and students worked diligently establishing clubs and societies, school traditions and social events, sports teams, an organized student government and a weekly newspaper, The Cub Californian.
The First Graduating Class
In 1923 the Southern Branch awarded its first two-year degrees, students who wanted to pursue a bachelor’s degree had to transfer to UC Berkeley or another college.
1923 Regents Rally
Regents Rally
Leadership, students and community members were determined the school should continue to grow, but the idea of expanding it to a four-year degree granting institution faced resistance from members of the UC Board of Regents and UC President David Prescott Barrows. At an on campus meeting to discuss the idea, students gathered outside chanting and singing.
At last, a third year was approved, paving the way for UCLA to become a four-year degree-granting institution. Edward Dickson wrote in the 1923 yearbook, “It is for you to establish and help maintain at this Southern Branch the ideals of the University of California. Its history and traditions are yours. They call for the best that is in you. Give it.”
In Feb. 1923, the Regents approved a fourth year of study, and in 1925 the Southern Branch awarded the first ever Bachelor of Arts degrees to 100 women and 24 men. The 1925 yearbook states, “Future progress is inevitable, but will depend upon the efforts of those who leave the University’s portals during the next decade. In the meantime we are building Californians. It is enough.”
Alumni Board
Alumni Board
As students graduated and moved on, there was a movement to stay connected, and the UCLA Alumni Association was formed. Five student body officers founded the organization: Leslie Cummins ’25, Thelma Gibson ’25, Fred Jordan ’25, Elder Morgan ’23 and Jerold Weil ’25.The newly formed group planned social events and served as advocates to the university. Among the other events they held were a spring banquet and, in 1927, the first homecoming bonfire.
A New Home
Site of Future University
Site of Future University
As the university expanded in enrollment and prestige, it outgrew its 25-acre Vermont Avenue campus. UC Regents eventually chose what they called the "Beverly Site.” The land, home to orange groves, rolling hills and ocean breezes, was originally the homelands of Tongva Native Americans. It was granted by Alta California Governor Micheltorena to Maximo Alanis in 1843 and called Rancho San Jose de Buenos Ayres.
After Alanis’s death, Benjamin Davis Wilson, the second mayor of Los Angeles became the owner. He sold to William Wolfskill, credited with industrializing California's citrus industry, and the property became known as Wolfskill Ranch.
Janss Steps
Janss Steps
Wolfskill sold to Englishman Arthur Letts Sr., founder of the Broadway and Bullocks department stores. After his death, Letts’ son-in-law Harold Janss and his brother, owners of Janss Investment Company, sold to the university at a discounted price. The Janss Investment Company went on to develop Westwood Village and the surrounding neighborhoods. Janss Steps are named for the two brothers.
To raise funds to buy the Westwood property, students, alumni and supporters went door-to-door to campaign for bond measure Proposition 2.
Students Rally for Westwood Site
Students Rally for Westwood Site
The land was sold to the cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills who then donated it to the state. In 1926 the University Regents changed the name to the University of California at Los Angeles (the “at” was replaced by a comma in 1958) and the student council adopted the Bruins nickname. The new Westwood campus broke ground in September 1927.
From the 1927 yearbook: “Our names, as is only just, will be forgotten. We alone, however, may take the honor of laying the foundation. To us has been given the pleasure and joy of pushing into the unknown. The return is worth the effort. And though our work may be forgotten, its influence will be eternal.”
Royce Hall Under Construction 1928
Royce Hall Under Construction - 1928
The new campus consisted of a plaza courtyard surrounded by the four original buildings – Royce Hall, named by Moore after California philosopher Josiah Royce, Powell Library, the Chemistry Building, now Haines Hall, and the Physics and Biology building, now Renee and David Kaplan Hall. The buildings were designed in a Lombardian style, with round arches and decorative arcades, by architect George W. Kelham of San Francisco, who designed the plan for the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco, and David Allison of the Los Angeles firm Allison & Allison, who also designed the Janss Dome and the Hollywood Post Office.
Tree Planting Ceremony at Founders Rock
Tree Planting Ceremony at Founders Rock
UCLA’s 75-ton Founders Rock was brought from the desert to mark the spot where Regent Edward A. Dickson stood when he made the final location decision. Intended as a campus gathering spot, the granite boulder was brought to Westwood in time to commemorate the groundbreaking of the new campus on Oct. 25, 1926, and is now located near Murphy Hall.
In 1929, 10 years after the Southern Branch of the University of California at Los Angeles opened its gates, 5,000 students started classes at the Westwood campus. As Moore had predicted in the 1919 yearbook, the school’s development had exceeded imagination. One can only wonder at the inaugural class’s delight and pride in today’s university. As UCLA celebrates the accomplishments of its first 100 years, it retains the original spirit of shared purpose and responsibility. As Moore wrote in 1919, “We have developed a feeling of unity and of cordial co-operation, which have made our life together a very real community of endeavor. The school has drive and energy. It also has good will, kindliness, and joy in plentiful measure.”