January 19, 2021 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

SMa.r.t. Column: Saving Our History Building

SMart has always looked for ways to do more with less and to live within our means on our way to a truly sustainable City. One way to do this is to try to recycle or reuse as much as possible everything from beverage containers to cars to entire buildings. 

Recycling entire buildings can involve picking them apart and reusing their constituents such as their beams and lumber, regrinding their concrete and stripping their copper plumbing and wiring. But a more productive way is to keep the building substantially intact and repurpose it for a new use. This process has many names, but typically it goes under the label of adaptive reuse which can involve selective demolition of some parts, adding to others, and even relocating the entire building in some cases. 

But in all cases, the idea is to preserve as much as possible the embodied energy, materials and labor that went into the original building. This in turn produces cost savings and does not waste the originally construction-produced greenhouse gases the are currently causing our global warming, nor does it double the amount of those deadly gases by total demolition and reconstruction. Finally adaptively reusing a building saves months, even years, of construction disruption particularly in the middle of a high school campus that has already endured years of construction chaos. 

Our School District, facing all the limitations of a shrinking student population, of ballooning pensions, of a pending divorce with Malibu, and of the current Covid 19 educational disaster, needs to become incredibly frugal as now is not the time for unnecessary spending. Fortunately, it now be both frugal and more effective by adaptively reusing one of its major high school buildings. Located on top of Prospect Hill, the highest point of the high school campus, the History Building is now facing the wrecking ball that has been crashing through the entire campus for the last decade. The District, unfortunately, not only wants to destroy this important building and its flanking structures but also to level Prospect Hill destroying the essential geography of the campus and its visual link to Santa Monica’s raison d’etre, the sea. 

This is an important historical 83 year old keystone for the entire campus that fans out around it. For more historical details please see: 

https://www.smconservancy.org/2020/11/the-historic-academic-core-buildings-of-samohi-on-top-of-prospect-hill/. Suffice it to say, it played a significant role when it was completed in 1937, symbolizing the high school’s rebirth after the 1934 earthquake had destroyed the previous building on the same spot, thus requiring the students to spend 3 years in tents. Tough then, but probably more fun than zoom classes today? 

In addition, since every student going to Samo High, in the last 8 decades, had classes in that building, it has concrete meaning for the 50,000 Samo alumni. Finally, it has figured prominently in many films including Rebel Without a Cause further cementing our relationship with Hollywood and its cultural touchstones. For these reasons, 2500 residents and counting have already signed a petition for the School District to reconsider the proposed demolition and to see if the building could be adaptively reused. 

Therefore, the School Board should hire a qualified preservation architect to see how it could be reused. This should not be a person biased toward new construction, but an experienced analyst with creative capacities. There will be resistance of course. We will be told that the room sizes are somehow not right for today’s teaching, that walls can’t be moved, that design money has already been spent, that the construction managers that paid for the campaign to pass the school bonds now want their payback, that delays are intolerable, etc. etc.. But really the discussion will come down to money. Somewhere on the order of approximately $150 million of your taxes has been budgeted for this endeavor. What if we could get all that same classroom area for half this cost and half the construction time including better insulation, better wiring and efficient lighting and soundproofing, more ecological heating and cooling, solar collectors and storage, and countless other improvements needed for the classrooms of the future? 

Such a saving, if attainable, would put $1630 in the pocket of every man, woman and child of our city without even counting the bond interest. However, in the unlikely event that the adaptive reuse remodel costs exactly the same as the new construction (with all the traditional cost overruns of public works), it would still save months maybe years of construction time compared to leveling a hill and starting over, not to mention avoiding all that dust, noise and globally fatal released green house gases. 

Note that the bonds have already been approved for this project. However, if the funds are not yet spent, you don’t have to pay for them and they could be stockpiled or used on other improvements that will certainly be required on other Santa Monica Schools or after another certainly up coming major earthquake such as the ones this building has already survived in 1971 and 1994.  

Every significant educational institution evolves over time, but each good one also keeps its legacy buildings to fix its historical continuity to past and future generations. We all stand on the metaphorical shoulders of those who taught us, just as we are teaching those who will come after us. Our school’s buildings manifest this fundamental optimistic progress particularly in these times of a national crisis of confidence. Cutting off your past is not the right lesson to inspire our students who face a very uncertain future. We study history to learn from it. It would be ironic and tragic if we cannot save even the history building that most specifically teaches how our ancestors elegantly survived the ravages of another national disaster, the Great Depression. Survivability is the most important and useful lesson we can teach. Let’s teach it right by saving the History Building.

Write to the school board today at brd@smmusd.org and attend their zoom meeting https://www.smmusd.org/Page/5456 typically on the first and third Thursday of the month.

By SMart Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Marc Verville CPA Inactive

For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

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