Nostalgia is not history

There are more than a division’s worth of soldiers in Washington to assure a safe, if no longer 100% peaceful, transition of power to Joe Biden. In that context, it is hard to live by Tip O’Neill’s adage and my usual mantra, “all politics is local.” The name of this blog, however, includes “local,” and local politics don’t stop because of what happens in the wider world. I’m reminded of Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001. The then City Manager, the formidable Susan McCarthy, kept City Hall open, declaring that to shut down the operations of government would be to hand a victory to the terrorists. I remember because I attended a zoning hearing that morning in City Hall to testify for a neighbor who needed a variance.

If Susan McCarthy could keep City Hall operating after 9/11, I’m not going to let a bunch of lunatic putschists in Washington prevent me from writing about why it’s okay to tear down the History Building at Santa Monica High School.

The entrance to the History Building at Samohi.

You may not be aware of the Samohi History Building controversy, because it has played out more in social media and by means of on-line petitions than in the press (although you can read about it here). What’s happening is that the School District is more than five years into the planning of the “Samohi Campus Plan” (SCP), a 25-year project to remake the Santa Monica High School campus, which itself is the product of many years of agonizing about what to do with the high school campus. Construction has begun; however, the SCP is a project with nine phases of construction, and the District is now only about to start Phase 3.

Phase 3 will require the demolition of the History Building, which is one of a cluster of four school buildings constructed or reconstructed as New Deal, WPA projects after the Long Beach Earthquake destroyed the original campus that dated back to 1913. Under the SCP, three of the buildings (History, Business, Art) will ultimately be demolished; a fourth, the English building, will be adapted and reused for administrative offices.

Current layout of the Samohi campus. The New Deal Cluster consists of the English, History, Business and Art Buildings.

Although the plans to demolish the History Building (and the other buildings) have been public knowledge, and well-publicized, since 2016, it is only now that preservationists, organized by the Santa Monica Conservancy, are demanding that the District “pause” the SCP to evaluate adaptive reuse possibilities. This request for a pause, however, is disingenuous, since preserving the three New Deal buildings, all of which had their historic integrity compromised by later renovations, would gut the SCP. The fundamental principle of the SCP is to realign the academic buildings around open space, to better connect the campus. This would be impossible if the New Deal buildings are retained. Saving them would require creating an entirely new plan, and I have to assume the preservationists know this. Here’s the landscaping plan for the new campus.

The yellow buildings will be constructed. (Note that one existing building, the Innovation Building in the northeast corner, is in fact new, having been constructed in 2105.) (This map is from the EIR; I’ve been informed that since the EIR changes have been made, but that they do not change the functioning materially.)

Ironically, the new plan, in its use of connecting open space, harks back to the original plan of the high school, when the academic buildings were concentrated around open space. Here’s a photo of the campus from 1925:

It was not easy for me to decide to oppose the Conservancy on the fate of the New Deal buildings. The Conservancy is one of my favorite organizations in town. I’ve long been a member. I was pleased to work with preservationists in the effort, probably futile now, to save the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. And speaking of favorite things, one of mine is the New Deal.

But the New Deal was not about buildings as buildings, it was about a vision of the future, a future structured by public investment in buildings, etc., that served the public. Sometimes the history of a place is more important than the preservation of artifacts. The real history of the Santa Monica High School campus—as opposed to the nostalgia—is a history of continual reinvestment, renewal, and rethinking. The buildings themselves (and without regard to intervening modifications) are not the history; they merely reflect the history.

Santa Monica voters passed a major bond issue in 1911 to build a new and bigger campus for the high school on Prospect Hill. The campus opened in 1913. As mentioned, the campus was destroyed by the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, and reconstructed with WPA funds. Then after World War II, to accommodate the Baby Boom generation, more bonds were passed, the campus was doubled in size (with land taken by eminent domain from African American and other historical “minorities,” but that’s another story), and most of the current campus was built. (That’s when the WPA buildings were remodeled. Fortunately no one is protesting the coming demolition of the 1960-era buildings.)

The Santa Monica community has always supported its schools with bonds. That’s the history: Santa Monicans want the best educations for their children and they’re willing to pay.

In the ’90s, when it was apparent that the facilities built generations before were wearing out, voters began passing bond issues to rebuild. Most of the bond money has gone to rehabilitating existing schools, and that’s largely been a good thing for the elementary schools, but the question of what to do with the high school was always there. It was recognized that much of the physical plant was impractical for current modes of instruction, and the campus was hard to get around, especially for students between classes. (My son went there, and he’s my source.) The buildings and grounds were in generally poor condition. For a time, there was talk of using the City’s redevelopment funds to help with some of the rebuilding, but that plan fell apart.

The School District decided some years ago to go bold, and that boldness resulted in the SCP. Most of the existing buildings will be torn down, and a spectacular new campus will take their place. Bravo. Look, I don’t pretend to know anything about the best way to teach adolescents in the 21st century, but if you study the SCP (you can read about it in the Environmental Impact Report), you have to be impressed with how much thought the District has put into the plan.

The purpose of the School District is to educate, not to preserve buildings if they no longer serve that purpose. Frankly, it’s outrageous for the Conservancy, especially since it’s been four years after the plans to demolish the buildings were publicized, to now tell the School Board to throw out its plans for the high school.

Thanks for reading. And all the best to Joe and Kamala! Let’s help them save our country.

2 thoughts on “Nostalgia is not history

  1. Note to readers: an earlier version of this said that the plan would lower the height of Prospect Hill by 15 feet. I got that from the EIR, but I’ve informed that since the EIR, that aspect has been removed from the plan. But the academic buildings will still be connected through the open space.

Leave a Reply to Frank Gruber Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.