OP-ED: Should We Be Tearing Down Old Schools?

by Maureen Neeley

Last year, and then again as recently as May 1, the Long Beach Unified School Board voted unanimously to begin the death knell for our city’s amazing collection of historic school buildings, starting with the demolitions of Cecil B. DeMille School (1956 – Kenneth Wing, Architect), Newcomb School (1963 – Hugh Gibbs, Architect) and Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School (1935 – George Kahrs, Architect).

Funded by Measure K, the LBUSD is undertaking a plan to bring our schools up to today’s educational standards. On the surface, this seems like a great idea and one which we can all support. A deeper review, however, reveals that the district may be taking the easy way out. The plan for the future seems to adhere to the traditional and uninspiring scorched-earth policy of demolish and re-build versus renovate and rehabilitate.

The current (2008) Facilities Master Plan calls for the demolition or major renovation of over 30 schools. Many of these are historically and architecturally significant, considered historic resources under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Elementary and Middle Schools

  • Jane Addams
  • Avalon
  • Bancroft
  • Barton
  • Bryant
  • Burbank
  • Burnett
  • Burroughs
  • DeMille
  • Gant
  • Garfield
  • Gompers
  • Hamilton
  • Hill
  • Holmes
  • Hudson
  • Jefferson
  • Keller
  • Lindsey
  • Longfellow
  • MacArthur
  • Marshall
  • McKinley
  • Monroe
  • Muir
  • Newcomb
  • Riley
  • Roosevelt
  • Signal Hill
  • Stephens
  • Tucker
  • Twain
  • Webster

High Schools

  • Jordan
  • Milliken
  • Reid

So, what’s the problem? Measure K will fund these projects and our students will get brand new schools. In digging a little deeper, one finds there is much to question. But first, a little background.

The 1933 Long Beach Earthquake and the Field Act

The vast majority of Long Beach schools were built or rebuilt after the 1933 Earthquake, using Federal funds issued by the Public Works Administration (PWA – a New Deal program). Prior to 1933, school construction was governed by local building codes. After the earthquake, the State of California passed the Field Act in response to public outcry over the vulnerability of school buildings to earthquake-related damage. The Act directed the State Division of Architecture to develop and enforce regulations to ensure earthquake resistant structures; this led to State oversight of school construction through the establishment of a building code and construction inspection for schools. Those schools that have been (re)built after 1933 adhere to these stricter codes. Local Visionaries of the Past

Long Beach has one of the most fortunate schools districts in California. The district was the recipient of an abundance of Federal funding to rebuild the earthquake-damaged schools – a real boon to our economy during the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. As a result, we have a nearly pristine collection of over 30 schools built in the Art Deco or Streamline Moderne style. Many of these schools incorporated Federal art, a heritage of the New Deal art program under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Federal art projects in Long Beach were strongly influenced by contemporary issues, and included murals, sculpture, mosaics and relief elements. These monumental public art pieces would be cost-prohibitive to replicate today.

Care was taken at the time to design school buildings which elevated the mind and spurred creativity. Using a cadre of well-regarded local architects1, these buildings were individually designed to reflect the neighborhood they served. Wood work, wainscoting, transom windows, floor and wall tiles were of excellent quality and craftsmanship. Look at some of the details of even the simplest school buildings from the late 1930s and early 1940s – you’ll see decorative design patterns etched into the stucco wall surfaces and solid wood banisters on the stairways.

Today’s Lack of Vision

Today – so far – the school district has chosen to use a very flat, two-dimensional assessment to meet current school construction requirements for education specifications (Education Specs). In attempting to marry these educational objectives with older structures, the current Facilities Master Plan recommends building new schools rather than retention and adaptive reuse of our current facilities. Is adaptive reuse feasible? Well, we can ask the school boards of Los Angeles Unified, Pasadena Unified, Beverly Hills Unified, to name a few. These, and other school districts across the nation, have successfully developed programs in which they consider and reuse many of their historic school facilities. All of these school boards have a plan in place to systematically upgrade their current collection of historic schools to today’s standards.

Our neighboring progressive school districts have documented their schools and instituted rehabilitation plans for four major reasons: 1) They recognize and appreciate the historical significance of these resources and the roles they play in community stability; 2) They made the choice to hire structural engineers, architectural firms, and consultants that were well versed in historic preservation architecture; 3) In most cases, adaptive reuse was clearly the less expensive and most sustainable (green) alternative; and, 4) Their constituents (alumni, tax-paying residents) demanded these schools be preserved. All of these efforts are lacking in Long Beach.

Iowa by the Sea? If the Shoe Fits…

Is Long Beach destined to be the poor, unsophisticated stepchild of Southern California? By continuing down the path of demolishing this collection of historically significant schools, we exhibit shortsighted and provincial thinking. But, it is not too late. The District must revise the Facilities Master Plan every 5 years. Long Beach Heritage, Los Angeles Conservancy and the Los Angeles Art Deco Society have been strongly encouraging the LBUSD to also use Measure K funds to conduct a comprehensive historic resources survey to identify and evaluate the school campuses for historical significance, and prepare a complementary treatment plan with guidelines that will help facilitate the reuse of these beautiful and important facilities as part of future master plan programs. It is time for Long Beach to grow up and act like a first-class city.

No Handwringing Allowed

Residents have recourse. Contacting your school board representative directly by email is the most effective means of stressing your concerns for the preservation of these important resources. The Board is comprised of good people who have a daunting task to ensure the safety and education of our children at a time when budgets are tight. Offer your understanding and support to them, but do remind them that we deserve the best advice possible when it comes to the future of our schools. Encourage them to make sure their architects, engineers, and consultants are creative, cost-conscious, knowledgeable, and experienced. Above all, we should not sell Long Beach short. Demolition of this fine collection of historic schools is an ill-informed and unnecessary loss of our heritage.


Horace Austin, Kirtland Cutter, Hugh Davies, Francis Gentry, Francis Heusel, George Kahrs, Schilling & Schilling, Kenneth Wing, James Friend to name a few.

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