From architect Richard Neutra's "mid-century" Kester Elementary School in Van Nuys to the "Spanish Revivalism" of the Carthay Center School on Olympic Boulevard, the Los Angeles Unified School District owns a host of largely unrecognized architectural treasures. The only problem for the huge bureaucracy is keeping stock of them.
The district currently undergoing an ambitious effort to build 200 schools in five years has been awarded $50,000 from the Getty Grant Program to study and document its older buildings. Within the district, some believe that documenting the past could enhance their efforts to build much-needed new schools, as well as guide school upgrades that have been criticized for being architecturally insensitive.
"We are not going to throw away what is good," said Jackie Barham of the LAUSD's design branch. "We are going to the past to see how we can replicate it, but not get stuck in it."
The survey not yet part of a preservation movement was prompted by the district's controversial approach to adding air-conditioning units at Lincoln High School.
Wrecking a design
The school is an example of "Streamline Moderne" architecture, a style used extensively for public buildings in the 1930s, using money from Franklin D. Roosevelt's Public Works Administration. The Lincoln Heights neighborhood and the Los Angeles Conservancy were outraged when they saw workers attaching air-conditioning units and duct work to the outside of the building.
"You don't block off windows and hang air-conditioning units in front of them," said Michael Diaz, co-chair of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood and Preservation Association. "You don't run wires and cables across the entire building."
The neighbors found an ally in the Proposition BB Oversight Committee, the group responsible for allocating funds made available through a ballot measure to install air-conditioning units in schools. Under heavy fire, the district has recognized its mistake and now plans to make the units less obtrusive.
Experts say the effort to document the LAUSD's architectural treasures has been a long time coming.
"The schools reflect the neighborhoods in which they were built," said John Oddy, program officer for the Getty Grant Program. "All of our communities do change rapidly, but the buildings are testimonials."
The Vermont Avenue School, built in 1896 under the name the Harper School, is an example of the period's fascination with the blending of styles. It is a Victorian building with dormers, uneven roof lines and decorative elements a direct reflection of the surrounding neighborhoods built roughly at the same time.
The Carthay Center School is another example of a cohesive neighborhood, with both the school and the Carthay Circle area reflecting a strong "Spanish Revival" style that was popular in the 1930s.
Some of the schools built in the 1920s and later in the 1950s show Los Angeles' fascination with modernism and post-modernism.
The Wilshire Crest School, annexed to the district in 1923, has the clean lines and lack of ornamentation characteristic of early modernism, while Neutra's Kester Avenue School is typical of styles from the exploding post-war growth of the San Fernando Valley.
Early on, administrators at the Kester school, built on eight acres in 1951, recognized the significance of the Neutra building and started a sort of in-house recognition effort. Barham said the principal made sure the student body was told about the significance of the structure by inviting Neutra's widow to speak at the school.
Some say the LAUSD has retained treasures like Kester in spite of itself. Although the district likely would have remodeled or torn down many of these structures to build larger schools if it had the money, the cash-strapped LAUSD has instead simply ignored them for decades.
The movie industry has also played a role in saving some of the buildings, because it has given the district an economic incentive to avoid remodeling some of its more picturesque schools. Hamilton High School in West L.A. and Dorris Place Elementary School near Elysian Park have frequently attracted film crews pumping in money for the district. John Burroughs Middle School, built in 1927 close to the stately Hancock Park neighborhood, is pure Ivy League with a brick fa & #231;ade that has changed little over the years making it a prime location for filming.
A few, like Mt. Vernon Junior High, at one time considered one of the most beautiful schools in the district, were not so lucky. A remodel changed the exterior, which was originally designed to replicate George Washington's home.
The plan now, said Ken Bernstein of the Los Angeles Conservancy, is to create a survey that will help the district do upgrades with integrity and make land-use decisions.
"As it (LAUSD) needs to expand and add new buildings, there is the potential for change or demolition," Bernstein said. "It (the survey) gives decision makers a chance to see which buildings might be historical."
The purpose of the survey, Bernstein said, is not to do "wholesale historic designations," but to encourage the district to start managing its resources.
Getty officials say they have never seen a grant application for a large group of buildings before, but Oddy noted that the LAUSD is a unique organization in L.A., with "an enormous system" that has been building throughout the 20th century.
"This will be the first effort by a large foundation to assist the district," Barham said. "We as a district need those kinds of efforts."
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