A Brief History
The Founding: The Co-op started out small. There were just nine members who rented “Adam House” in West Los Angeles in December 1936. But the idea was big. So was the foresight and the leadership of the person with the idea: John Essene, for whom Essene Hall is named.
The times were right as the United States was just beginning to emerge from the Great Economic Depression and self-help cooperatives, perhaps out of necessity, were much in vogue. Essene’s concept made sense: low-cost housing for UCLA students; run by students; available to all, regardless or race or religion; and governed by the Rochdale Principles.
In the beginning, John Essene did the books while his mother acted as cook/housemother. House meetings were held at the dinner table and dealt with such matters as menus and monthly charges (which were then a whopping $40/month).
Growth came rapidly: In February 1937, two more units opened. McCampbell House with 15 students and the controversial racially-integrated International House with 4. Seven months later, Adam and International Houses gave way to Brentwood Hall (a collection of adjacent A, B and C houses, plus a cottage), housing 50 men. Small as it was, it operated much the same as UCHA operates today. Members elected both officers and an Assignment Manager and performed 4-5 hours of chores per week.
A key organizer of International House was Everett Robison, the son of the UCLA Director of Admissions, Charles Robison. Everett never became a resident and as fate would have it, he died at a very early age in 1940 of natural causes.
Incorporation: When the Co-op actually incorporated in September 1938, the officially-recorded name was University of California at Los Angeles Cooperative Housing Association, commonly referred to as just “CHA.”
There was a forced name change from UCLACHA to UCHA in 1954 at the insistence of the Regents of the University of California who wanted the initials UCLA to apply only to the school and to nothing else they didn’t own. Incidentally, the CHA initials were incorporated in the name of the newsletter that continues to this day: the Chatterbox.
Growth continued: Other leased units opened: D House, E House, F (Foo) House, and Fallick House with four married couples, which was then an eyebrow-raising issue. Some leases were lost. It was time to buy.
Buying Robison: In April 1941, John Essene found the “most favorable possibility yet uncovered for purchase.” It was the Richard Neutra-designed “Glass House” on Ophir Drive–our Robison Hall.
There were two key obstacles to overcome. One was money (the lack of it). The other was a restrictive Caucasians-only covenant in the deed. The money problem was solved when Everett Robison’s mother, June (“a flaming liberal” said John Essene), turned angel in memory of her son and guaranteed a $2500 bank loan. The restrictive covenant, clearly in direct opposition to the Rochdale Principles, had a loophole; it accepted “servants.” CHA attorney August Rosenberg concluded that since all members did compulsory chore assignments, it could be suggested that legally they were all servants. Escrow closed in October 1941.
The 1940s: CHA consisted of Robison and several other rented houses. Each house ran its own government which sent representatives to the CHA Board meetings.World War II came and the US Army borrowed Robison Hall for use as officers’ quarters from 1943-44. When the Army returned Robison, vacancies filled immediately and the waiting list kept getting longer. Many of the rooms housed 4 members and some rooms that are now singles and doubles were then doubles and triples.The atmosphere was rife with political controversy. CHA was labeled “a hotbed” of radicalism…(and) a nest of homosexuality.”
Death and Communism: In 1949, a California State Senator subjected CHA to a month-long investigation of the death of one of its members. The coroner’s report listed heart failure as the cause of death, and a subsequent fall into the boiler pit (in the Robison basement, where he did his chore shift) as the cause of postmortem concussion. The Senator was convinced the member had recently left a Communist subversive faction at UCLA and was murdered because he knew too much. Nothing became of the investigation.
The 1950s: Early in the decade, CHA acquired Landfair House at 500 Landfair, the “Pre-Fab” behind it (a small, rectangular, Army surplus building), and the adjacent vacant lot. The Pre-Fab was everybody’s worst Bump Night nightmare. In one barracks lived 12 men with metal Army surplus bunks, one bathroom, lights out at 11pm and rise and shine at 6:45am. The Pre-Fab developed its own identity. One year it flew the Confederate flag and threatened to secede from CHA.
Community relations: Although the Co-op had long had a reputation as being a lively place, by 1958 both UCHA and neighboring Theta Delta fraternity were in hot water with the University because of the noisy water fights. “They throw firecrackers at us, we throw rocks, mud, and dye in their pool.”
The 1960s: The atmosphere was no less politically outspoken than previous decades. Some members burned their draft cards, with the remaining members offering their support throughout their trial. In 1969, UCHA began admitting women as permanent members, but only after long, arduous debates.
Building Hardman-Hansen: Once a loan was procured, UCHA hired Cris Wojciechowski in 1971 who worked with the members on the plans and designs. After razing Landfair House and the Pre-Fab, HHH was built and opened in 1973.
Our Accountant: Earl Cline has a 50- year involvement with UCHA. He happened to be the first member to move into E-2 in Robison back in 1941-several weeks before escrow closed. Earl was drafted into the Navy prior to his scheduled graduation in 1943. He was studying accounting. He came back to the Co-op and Robison Hall in June, 1946, and became the bookkeeper. After nearly 5 decades as our CPA, Earl retired. Earl Cline helped UCHA obtain tax-exempt status, which means less expense to all members.
Robison renovation: After a half century of hard use, Robison was completely renovated, made earthquake proof and sprinklered. The 9-month project was completed in March, 1991.
Writing of the Co-op History: Like all other projects in the Co-op, a group of co-opers got together in the mid 1970’s to write the Co-op history from which most of the above summary stems. If you have an interest in the cooperative movement and the history of the UCHA, perhaps you can volunteer to write the next chapter, literally.