This Is Probably The Oldest Intact Public School Building In L.A.

Historic preservationists usually reach the point where, besides taking an interest in historic architecture generally, they become curious about buildings for particular types of institutions and organizations.   An example of this is the public school system.   How many high schools did L.A. have in 1931?  How many of their original buildings are left, and what's the oldest one still standing? How many elementary schools?  It stands to reason there must have been many more of the latter, so the oldest one should be significantly older than the oldest high school.   As institutions, there are a few elementary schools that date far back into the 19th century, most notably San Pedro Street ES which has occupied the same property for more than 150 years.  It hardly needs to be said, though, that none of its original buildings are still standing.

Los Angeles High School: Three Locations and Three Buildings Over 43 Years: 1873, 1890, and 1916

What needs to happen for an old schoolhouse, or any old building, to survive in this city?  Not surprisingly, it's  really more about what needs not to happen.  As an example, there were several developments in the history of Los Angeles High School each of which required a new building, and often a new site as well

  1. The school's student population must stay constant, because if it grows, a new and larger building will be needed.  LAHS needed three different sites and three successively larger buildings in the first forty-three years of its existence. 
  2. The neighborhood around the school must stay about the same in terms of residential/commercial mix, types and sizes of businesses, and so on.  When neighborhoods change rapidly, the demolition and replacement of buildings becomes endemic.  LAHS had to move not only because of its expanding student population, but also because its original neighborhood of widely spaced homes and small commercial buildings had become a densely developed commercial zone, although in the early 20th century there remained a lot of residential property.
  3. The building doesn't stand in the way of any major infrastructure projects, like freeways or rail terminals.
  4. The building should not come under new laws or building codes  that requires its demolition and reconstruction.  In 1914, the voters of Los Angeles approved a measure requiring that all wood-frame schoolhouses had to be replaced by masonry buildings, so obviously a great many existing school buildings were automatically slated for demolition and replacement that year.
  5. Earthquakes need to not happen (Good luck with this one). After the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, LAHS' 1916 building had to be demolished, only to be replaced by an architectural atrocity of which I won't even include a picture here.  Look at it on Google Earth if you must; the  address is 4650 West Olympic. Numerous other school buildings around the city likewise had to be replaced after the 1933 Long Beach quake. 
LAHS' peripatetic history is quite unusual, as most schools have stayed in place.  But even for schools that were never relocated, the replacement of buildings has become almost universal in the case of schools founded before 1933.  The 1914 ordinance requiring the replacement of wood frame buildings probably was a contributing factor, because when the 1914 law was enacted masonry's vulnerability to earthquakes was not a consideration as the risk was as yet unrecognized. (LAUSD 2002, p8) 

In other words, many of the pre-1914 wooden schoolhouses might have survived the 1933 quake better than their 1915 replacements did.  Less commonly, pre-1933 buildings were partially retained but extensively changed, often by the removal of upper stories.

By contrast, there was at least one school building which, although it has long since ceased to be a school, has hardly changed from the day it was built in 1915...

New Macy Street School, from an L.A. Times article published 1915-05-02. 

...until today.

New Macy Street School Building, December 2015.  This is from Cesar Chavez Avenue, formerly Macy Street, just east of the Union Station tracks.  

The school name "New Macy Street" is an inherently confusing one, since "old" Macy Street School was just next door, also on Avila Street. Moreover, for a brief period in the 19th Century, Clara Street was called New Macy Street, and most elementary schools were named for the streets on which they stood. The original school names were usually kept even when the streets were renamed. 

New Macy Street School building today, aerial view (Google Earth)

Garibaldi Street was renamed to Clara at some point between 1910 and 1914, as shown by the 1914 Baist Real Estate Survey.  

1914 Baist Real Estate Survey Map

Note that this small block also contained a residential tract, which continued to exist even after Union Station was built.  This detail of a Sanborn fire insurance map, made shortly after the station opened, shows that the west side of Clara is still lined with houses.

Sanborn fire insurance map, late 1930s

Until the late 1930s the old wood-frame building of the original Macy Street School still existed, as shown in this video taken of the neighborhood when the construction of Union Station was just getting under way.

Here's a closer view from about the same time, where it seems clear that the building was about to be demolished.  However, it wasn't in the way of the Union Station project.

These kids are all past 90 now!

When the 1938 film of the neighborhood was made, a camera was mounted on some kind of flatbed conveyance which was driven along Macy Street, now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. It's possible that it ran on the streetcar tracks, although the tracks are not always visible in the film.  The next still shows New Macy Street School to the left; the vantage point is where Chavez Avenue dives under the Union Station tracks.

New Macy Street to the left.  

At about the point where we would be coming out the other end of the tunnel, the street looked like this.  The New Macy Street building is out of frame to the left.  Before the tunnel was in place, Clara, Avila, and Macy/Chavez all intersected at grade.    Seen just left of center is a diner offering LUNCH.

The "LUNCH" Restaurant. Somehow this seems very typical of the time.

The camera was able to pan and zoom, so as the vehicle moved further on, it captured this view down Clara Street.  The south facade of the New Macy building is visible to the left.  The house in the distance is on Vignes Street.

Looking down Clara Street.  The LUNCH restaurant is to the right.

And finally, here's the view down Clara Street today.  The New Macy Street building, which today houses a bail bond agency, is at left.  The house on Vignes Street, as well as the LUNCH restaurant, is long gone.  

Clara Street today.  Where can we have LUNCH now?

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