Los Angeles in Los Angeles County, California — The American West (Pacific Coastal)
University of Southern California
—Angels Walk — USC —
Built in 1880, Widney Hall, now Widney Alumni House, was the school’s first building, created by one of 19th-century Los Angeles’ unusual characters: a land promoter, engineer, attorney and judge who was also a deadly pistol shot and the man who began USC.
Robert Maclay Widney was an Ohio farm boy who left home at 16 with nothing more than an axe, a knapsack and a rifle. He hooked up with a wagon train, walking all the way to Northern California in 1857.
The farm boy worked odd jobs to pay tuition at Santa Clara’s College of the Pacific, where he graduated with a degree in engineering and taught math and geology while he studied law and courted college mate Mary Barnes.
With a hundred dollars in his pocket and his bride on his arm, Widney arrived in Los Angeles in February 1868. He hung out his legal shingle on a downtown adobe.
But when he realized that the land beneath him was worth more than legal advice, he made himself into the town’s first attorney-real estate salesman.
Even his office bespoke the real estate mantra of “location, location, location.” It was conveniently near the popular Bella Union saloon, where Widney ocassionally conducted business—but never drank.
One day, Widney stood at the saloon door, watching some liquored-up men try shoot out a knot of wood in the wall. When they missed, their mood got ugly, and they turned on Widney. “Run that damned teetotaler out of town,” one of them shouted, unholstering his gun to try to force Widney to take a drink.
“I don’t drink,” Widney snarled, and drew his own gun and fired three shots, dead-center, into the knot of wood.
“You win!” the drunk conceded.
An Idea Takes Form. The businessman who was willing to take a risk was also willing to take a stand. In 1871, as deadly anti-Chinese riots raged through town, ultimately massacring 18 Chinese immigrants, Widney drew his Colt revolver once again, and plunged into the murderous mob, escorting several Chinese to safety.
By 1879, Widney had championed such improvements as a horse-drawn trolley line, bringing the Southern Pacific Railroad to Los Angeles, and electric streetlights.
Now he presented Methodist Episcopal Church elders with his idea of building a university. Widney’s idea won them over. The three men who donated the land were a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew, and their diversity underlay the new university’s mandate that “no student would be denied admission because of race, color, religion or sex.”
Named for the man who made it possible, Widney Hall opened its doors on Oct. 6, 1880—a two-story Georgian-Victorian-style building with 53 students studying classical arts, philosophy and science, and each paying $12 to $15 in tuition fees.
The Bell Tolls And Returns. Ten years later, on Halloween night 1890, the Sigma Chi fraternity members snatched the bell from Widney Hall. The ringleader sped off with the bell in his late-model buckboard, and the bell stayed with the fraternity for a hundred years. The bell the fraternity finally returned was a duplicate; the original had probably been melted down in some scrap-metal drive.
The university itself had been Widney’s idea,
Location. 34° 1.102′ N, 118° 16.995′ W. Marker is in Los Angeles, California, in Los Angeles County. Marker is at the intersection of Exposition Boulevard and Pardee Way, on the right when traveling west on Exposition Boulevard. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Los Angeles CA 90089, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. A Trojan for Life (about 400 feet away, measured in a direct line); The Oldest University Building in Southern California (about 400 feet away); John C. Argue Plaza (about 500 feet away); Petrified Tree from the Arizona Forest (about 500 feet away); USC Urban Legends (about 500 feet away); Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (about 700 feet away); The Carolyn Craig Franklin Library Garden Courtyard and Fountain (about 700 feet away); Teaching and Learning (approx. 0.2 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Los Angeles.
More about this marker. This historical interpretive panel has a cylindrical shape.
Also see . . .
1. About USC. This page contains a 4 minute video "Honoring the Past” and multiple pages discussing USC’s history. (Submitted on January 9, 2019.)
2. Angels Walk. Self-guided walking tours of historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The USC marker is part of the Figueroa walk. (Submitted on January 14, 2019.)
Credits. This page was last revised on January 15, 2019. This page originally submitted on January 9, 2019, by J. J. Prats of Powell, Ohio. This page has been viewed 80 times since then. Last updated on January 14, 2019, by Craig Baker of Sylmar, California. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4. submitted on January 9, 2019, by J. J. Prats of Powell, Ohio. 5. submitted on November 29, 2018, by J. J. Prats of Powell, Ohio. 6. submitted on January 9, 2019, by J. J. Prats of Powell, Ohio. • Andrew Ruppenstein was the editor who published this page.