UPDATE: Roosevelt School was demolished in November 2012

Roosevelt SchoolBy Louise Ivers     

Long Beach Heritage has responded to the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that outlines the immanent demolition of Theodore Roosevelt School at 1574 Linden Avenue. This distinctive Streamline Moderne structure was designed by noted Long Beach architect George Kahrs in 1935 [fig.1]. It will be replaced by a group of contemporary buildings constructed around a landscaped playground and funded with $38,700,000 from Measure K bonds. The recently published EIR , however, identifies two alternatives: no project and major renovation. Long Beach Heritage strongly advocates for the latter alternative. Major renovation would ensure that the Streamline Moderne classroom building be saved and upgraded with twenty-first century technology. The temporary bungalows would be razed and replaced with new construction. Major renovation is the most environmentally sound alternative as well because it will not use as many new materials or cause as much pollution from the demolition process.  

Roosevelt’s architect, George Walter Kahrs (1889-1980), was born in Commack, New York and moved to Nebraska when he was a child. He studied at Washington University in St. Louis and received a degree in architecture from Columbia University in New York. He came to Long Beach in 1915, served in the United States Navy during World War I and entered into a partnership with Natt Piper (1886-1969) in 1919 after his return from the service. Piper, who was also an accomplished watercolorist, and Kahrs were one of the major architectural firms in early twentieth century Long Beach. They were quick to adopt the new Art Deco style in the late 1920s and early 1930s, evidenced in the demolished Buffum Hotel of 1930 [fig.2] and the Economy Open Air Market of the same year, still standing at the northwest corner of Broadway and Redondo Avenue.

 Buffum hotel 210 E. 3rd St Long Beach 1930

Many new schools were built in the 1920s when the population of the city of Long Beach skyrocketed due to both a large influx of new residents and the annexation of great amounts of land. One of these was named after popular president Theodore Roosevelt and constructed in 1920-21 [fig. 3]. It was designed by John Austin of Los Angeles and W. Horace Austin of Long Beach (but they were not related) in a Spanish Renaissance Revival style with arched openings in the projecting centerpiece, engaged columns, urns, and a hipped tile roof. An addition constructed in 1924 displayed Plateresque heraldic motifs above the entrance.

On March 10, 1933 a 6.0 earthquake struck Long Beach and devastated many unreinforced brick masonry buildings in the city, including most of the schools. Roosevelt Elementary School was one of those which suffered great damage and had to be torn down. However, some materials were saved from the original structure, particularly the wood floors, and incorporated into Kahrs’ design in 1935. After the earthquake Long Beach desperately needed building inspectors to assess the damage and in October of that year, Natt Piper was appointed to the post of City Building Inspector. Thus, the partnership of Piper and Kahrs was dissolved and George Kahrs worked on the plans for Roosevelt School with two engineers, J. H. Davies and C. D. Walles. Meyers Brothers were the contractors for the new Roosevelt school building that cost $118,289. On November 25, 1935 the Press-Telegram described the structure as “conservatively modern in its design.” It had a steel frame, stucco walls, thirteen classrooms, a library, a kindergarten, home economics rooms, and a boys’ room (probably a shop). 

The building was funded by the federal Public Works Administration (PWA). It has large, vertical triple glazed windows to allow natural light into the classrooms, which all face outward from a central corridor, because the amount of illumination created by the electric bulbs of the thirties was minimal. Fluted piers, a characteristic Streamline Moderne motif, divide these openings and are complemented by horizontal lines in the spandrels below the second story windows. The centerpiece of the façade projects upward in two steps to accentuate the middle of the building and a curved canopy shelters the entrance lobby, which retains its original yellow and green tiles set in linear patterns. Above the canopy is a distinctive, geometric art stone (cast concrete) relief. All of these architectural motifs, especially the curves and repeated lines, were inspired by the shapes of ocean liners, trains, and airplanes of the thirties. They implied modernity, technological advances, and hope for the future. The auditorium flanking the south side of the classroom structure also has a Streamline Moderne design with a curved canopy above the double doors and a series of folded planes across the top of the façade that resemble the fluting of the piers on the main building.

Shortly after the completion of Roosevelt Elementary School, George Kahrs designed another highly visible structure in Long Beach, the Veterans Memorial Building of 1936-37 [fig.4]. It was the last part of the architectural trio that formed the Civic Center facing Lincoln Park that was demolished in the 1970s. Like Roosevelt Elementary School, the Veterans Memorial had a projecting central portion, fluted piers, and cast art stone reliefs. The sculpture over the entrance was by Merrell Gage, a well-known California artist, and it depicted an American eagle flanked by figures holding a flower on the left and a sword on the right, symbolizing veterans’ roles in peacetime and wartime.

Long Beach Heritage hopes that the School District will choose the renovation alternative when seeking to update its historic collection of schools. We recognize that Roosevelt Elementary School is one of a group of several dozen architecturally significant campuses that were constructed in the mid- 1930s under the aegis of the PWA. The majority of these schools display either Art Deco or Streamline Moderne elements and they collectively form an important piece of our city heritage that should be preserved. Many of these buildings also have significant art works inside of them that should be kept intact as well. All of the post-earthquake schools were designed by the leading Long Beach architects of the period, including George Kahrs, W. Horace Austin, and Cecil Schilling. These structures are a unique asset in the history of southern California.

ACTION update:

In March 2012, Long Beach Heritage responded to the Roosevelt EIR, asserting that most of the district's objectives could be met through the adaptive re-use of the main campus building, rather than demolition. Short of that, we requested  that the mitigation measures be more thorough.

We have since been invited to discuss with the district ideas for completing an historic resources survey of all LBUSD facilities, especially those built with PWA/WPA funds during the 1930s. We have also offered to assist in developing ways to utilize the State Historic Building Code to achieve the construction objectives of the school district.

Finally, over the past several years, Long Beach Heritage and the Historical Society of Long Beach have worked together to research and catalog the architecture  and art of the Long Beach Schools. A link to a recent exhibit can be found at Rebuilding for the Future: A New Deal for Long Beach, 1933-1942.

If you would like to assist with any of these projets, or have information that would be helpful, please contact the LBH office at 562-493-7019.