L.A. nonprofit the Children’s Institute unveils Frank Gehry–designed campus in Watts

A Message of Support and Care

L.A. nonprofit the Children’s Institute unveils Frank Gehry–designed campus in Watts

Entrance to the new, Frank Gehry Watts campus of the L.A.-headquartered Children's Institute. (Oltmans Construction Co./Courtesy Children's Institute)

There’s no deficit of Frank Gehry–designed projects underway in and around the 93-year-old architect’s adopted home of Los Angeles. Among them: a hotel- and residential-anchored cultural campus near the beach on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, the L.A. River redevelopment scheme, a major expansion of the Colburn School in downtown L.A., the much-buzzed-about twin-towered Grand development project (located  just across the way from the Colburn School expansion), and a mixed-use housing complex at the former Sunset Strip site of the iconic, long-ago-demolished Garden of Allah Hotel in West Hollywood.

However, it’s Gehry’s next-to-debut L.A. project that, although more modest in scale and less headline-grabbing in nature than the others, is poised to have the most meaningful impact.

Set to open later this summer with a community celebration slated for June 25, is a new, Gehry Partners–designed campus for the Children’s Institute (CII). Founded in 1906 by Minnie Barton, L.A.’s first female probation officer, the nonprofit organization provides services and support to children and families in the Los Angeles area as they heal from traumatic experiences. (It goes without saying that in this day and age, the services provided by CII are more vital than ever). Located in the Watts neighborhood of South L.A, the 20,000-square-foot campus is the first purpose-built home for the 116-year-old CII and its fifth program-anchoring facility, joining the Otis Booth Campus in Central Los Angeles, the Mid-Wilshire campus, the Head Start Office at Figueroa Center, and its Long Beach Center.

aerial view of a frank gehry-designed community center in los angeles
Aerial view of the Children’s Institute campus in Watts. Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers are located nearby. (Oltmans Construction Co./Courtesy Children’s Institute)
Corrugated metal clad portions of the facade. (Oltmans Construction Co. Courtesy Children’s Institute)

Located opposite Ted Watkins Memorial Park (and not too far from the neighborhood’s famed sculptural towers) at East 102nd Street and Success Avenue, the CII’s $25.79 million Watts campus project broke ground in February 2020, with Gehry taking on the project pro bono. “It is our intent that the building will be comforting and welcoming,” Gehry said at the time. “I hope this building will serve and inspire children and families for generations to come.”

Joining Gehry and Gehry Partners on the project design team was landscape architecture practice Elysian Landscapes and architect of record Chait & Company.

In a press statement announcing the forthcoming opening of the new Watts campus, CII described the project as a “permanent investment and commitment to the community of Watts, an architectural landmark, and a critical resource for families.” The nonprofit has had a strong presence in Watts since 2007, and provides services—workshops, counseling, and more that aim to “transform lives affected by racist policies and limited opportunity”—out of seven locations via partnerships with families and community service organizations. The new campus will centralize its disparate operations across the community.

“In addition to our annual programmatic support, the new campus symbolizes our permanent commitment to the community, providing a critical resource that will enable our continued growth in support of the children and families of Watts. We are thrilled to increase our investment in the future of this extraordinary neighborhood in such a public way,” said Children’s Institute President and CEO Martine Singer in a statement. “This beautiful building, designed by Frank with great care, generosity, and understanding, will enable us to be a true partner to the community.”

The central atrium at soon-to-open Watts Campus of the Children’s Institute. (Oltmans Construction Co./Courtesy Children’s Institute)
(Oltmans Construction Co./CourtesyChildren’s Institute)

With its boxy form comprised of “simple interlocking volumes” and the generous use of corrugated metal cladding, the design of the two-story facility harkens back to Gehry’s formative L.A. works, including modestly budgeted projects like the Norton Residence and Gemini G.E.L. As previously noted by L.A.-based AN contributor Shane Reiner-Roth, a “formally separate lobby with a diamond-shaped skylight will usher visitors into an atrium-like space that will receive generous natural light from wraparound clerestory windows.”

As envisioned by CII, the new campus will pull double-duty as both a multifaceted community hub and a therapy center and, as such, flexible public spaces play heavily into the design, enabling the nonprofit to effortlessly host community events, neighborhood council meetings, and other gatherings of various sizes. Transparency and accessibility were also chief considerations, resulting in a building that’s “scaled appropriately to the surrounding neighborhood” and feels “approachable and useable by the community.”  To that end, the facade is “broken down to relate to the adjacent single-family residences while also reflecting the scale of the programs inside,” as CII noted.

As for the programs inside, the new Watts campus will play host to myriad therapeutic programs and free services, including toddler socialization, individual and group counseling, youth development activities, parenting workshops, workforce development/employment support, and Project Fatherhood sessions, according to CII. Also physically located at the campus will be the Watts Gang Task Force and the LAPD Community Safety Partnership. “We are blessed to have this valuable new community space as we continue to work to create safe and peaceful neighborhoods,” said Donny Joubert, vice president of the Watts Gang Task Force, of what he described as the 15-year-old organization’s “first-ever homebase.”

(Oltmans Construction Co./CourtesyChildren’s Institute)

Additionally, the campus provides office space for 150 CII staffers, in a move that will “enable teams to manage the many programs and continue to strengthen programmatic reach.”

“A building design can tell a kid that we love you,” said Frank Gehry. “A building that is optimistic, that is outgoing and friendly to the community, sends a powerful message of support and care. I hope this building will serve and inspire children, families, and this great organization for generations to come, and let them know that people care about them.”

The June 25 community celebration at CII’s new Watts campus will include a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, live music, food trucks, and remarks by Gehry, CII leadership, and others.