Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility Campus/Historic District | Los Angeles Conservancy
Chapel built in 1933, currently slated for demolition. Photo by Whittier Conservancy

Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility Campus/Historic District

The Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility Campus is the site of a juvenile reform school that operated continuously from 1891 to 2004 in the City of Whittier. The facility opened on July 1, 1891, and through the course of its history, became the oldest of its kind operated by the California Youth Authority until its closure in June 2004.

The campus is tied to the early development of Whittier. In 1890, a coaltion of Whittier business people succeeded in convincing the State of California to open one of the needed State Reform Schools for Juvenile Offenders in the young community. The coalition donated forty acres for that use, and the creation of the campus was a boost to the fledgling town’s economy.


Between 1912 and 1927, the facility was overseen by Superintendent Fred C. Nelles (pronounced Nellis), the intitution’s longest serving superintendent whose fifteen-year tenure at the school produced  numerous and significant changes at the institution and marked an important chapter in the facility’s historical significance. Nelles revolutionized the methods of the times for dealing with delinquent youth.

In 1913, a massive explosion at the campus power plant forced the condemnation and demolition of many of the original structures on campus, including the imposing Romanesque Revival Administration Building, nicknamed “the Castle.” The implementation of the cottage system in 1920 was made possible in part by the emergency relief money granted by the state after the explosion. 

The construction of several new buildings in the English Revival style, including a new administration building, a superintendent’s residence, a commissary, and several ward cottages, transformed the physical identity of the campus. With its revamped setting reminiscent of a New England prep school, the campus became popular for location filming and many MGM movies were filmed on the grounds during the 1930s and early 1940s.

In 1941, the State of California adopted the Youth Authority Act and established the Youth Correction Authority (California Youth Authority), which oversaw activities at the school renamed in honor of Nelles.

The 1950s and 60s brought many changes to the campus, with many of the English Revival cottages demolished and replaced with the existing one-story, Ranch Style brick barracks. While few of the buildings constructed during Nelles’ term remain today, the surviving English Revival buildings include the Administration Building (1929), and the Superintendent’s Residence (1920).

Additional buildings were constructed on the campus through 2002, including some temporary/modular structures, and the facility was formally closed by the State in 2004 and has remained vacant since then.

The entire site is listed in the California Register of Historical Resources and determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. At least eight buildings on the campus have been previously identified and appear to be eligible for individual listing in the National Register. 

Rancho Los Amigos and power plant structure. Photo by Adrian Scott Fine/L.A. Conservancy

Rancho Los Amigos

The former County Poor Farm, now abandoned, provides a rare glimpse into the early history of Los Angeles.