6 Southern California Schools with Fascinating Design Stories

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Retrofits, a Neutra school by the sea, and a building designed by blindfold-wearing architects are among some of Socal’s fascinating campuses.

larchmont charter high school
Photo ©DSH (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It’s back to school time for many Los Angeles students so this week’s L.A. Designer focused on Larchmont Charter High School (above), the vertical, urban retrofit of a Welton Beckett-designed 1955 office building for New York Life Insurance Company. Read the interview with architect Chava Danielson of DSH/Architecture  here. But that’s not the only school with an interesting design backstory. Here are six more. Let us know about LA schools with buildings you admire.

web20120709_osb_052 1. Playa Vista Elementary School

As the story goes, the planners of Playa Vista created the master-planned community for adults, not anticipating children, so they did not build a school. When residents settled and — surprise! — produced kids, the LAUSD hired Michael Pinto of NAC Architecture to design Playa Vista Elementary School, a public STEM magnet opened in September of 2012. In addition to its sustainable features (including solar panels, recycled rainwater, and a geothermal heating system), children get on-site nature instruction from inspecting the flora and fauna of an adjacent creek, and it has striking colors and graphics by Pinto’s wife and business partner Juliette Bellocq.

Photo by Lisa Gruber (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

2. Palos Verdes High School 

Back when Palos Verdes schools were part of LAUSD, celebrated modernist architects Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander were hired to work with Palos Verdes architect Carrington Lewis on the design of Palos Verdes High School, a campus located a mere block away from the sea on a scenic but windy site. The obligatory clay tile pitched roof represents a diversion from Neutra’s functionalist style but it, says the LA Conservancy, bears his flourish of the “spider leg” supports (above). DnA’s Caroline Chamberlain studied at the school and while there had no knowledge of its architectural pedigree; but says she remembers airy, well-lit classrooms that were very different from the recently added portables.

Photo by Takashige Ikawa / Frederick Fisher and Partners Architects

3. Jane B. Eisner School 

Located just west of downtown Los Angeles, Jane B. Eisner School is an intermediate school that occupies a retrofitted 1928 building for Southern California Telephone Company that is now a City of Los Angeles Cultural Monument. The former truck maintenance facility now incorporates nine classrooms, teacher’s office, lounge area, library and computer lab. Architect Hector Semidey of Frederick Fisher and Partners said one of the biggest challenges was designing a school in a historic preservation zone in the “Byzantine-Latino” neighborhood (a 1997 designation acknowledging the area’s Latino majority and Greek period.) 

Photo by Architectural Resources Group (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

4. CDI Early Learning Center 

The zig-zag roofed CDI Early Learning Center was formerly the Canoga Park Branch of Los Angeles Public Library. Built in 1959, the original structure was part of the Southern California postwar construction boom, and it became the first library to become a historic-cultural monument in Los Angeles. Eventually the Canoga Park Branch of LAPL relocated, leaving the building vacant. Carde Ten Architects and team transformed it into an Early Learning Center for the Child Development Institute, earning a 2014 LA Conservancy Preservation Award.

Photo by www.you-are-here.com (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

5. Braille Institute of America

The architects for the Braille Institute wore blindfolds for two weeks before designing the institute’s campus. Designed by William Pereira & Associates and opened in 1974, The Braille Institute is a two-story brutalist building that uses “bright colors as guides throughout the interior (only 10% of the visually handicapped are completely blind). Doors for students to use were painted colors that highly contrasted with the walls, while doors that students were not supposed to use were painted to blend into the walls.”


6. Southwestern Law School

Ask Angelenos to pick their favorite L.A. building, and many will name Bullocks Wilshire. Originally a luxury department store, Bullocks Wilshire is one of several iconic buildings (along with City Hall, Union Station, Los Angeles Memorial Colosseum and many others) designed by John Parkinson in the first half of the 20th century. After decades of decline, the Art Deco building was designated a historic-cultural monument of Los Angeles in 1968 and became home to Southwestern Law School in 1994.

Let us know if you know of any other So-Cal schools you know of with interesting design stories.