Should Old School Get a New Try?

Herb Gallegly can remember running past the columns of the old Villa Park Elementary School's covered breezeway during air raid drills in the 1940s.

The 64-year-old man stood on the same ink-stained hardwood floors of the abandoned building Thursday, debating whether the stately but dilapidated structure should be saved for posterity or razed to alleviate the modern woe of overcrowded classrooms.

"My feeling is this whole group probably is being selfish to some degree," he said, referring to members of a newly formed committee seeking to save the 1918 building. "We would like to save it for ourselves and posterity. But are we saving it at the expense of future generations?"

That's the crux of the issue before the Orange Unified School Board on next Thursday.

The school buildings, featuring the elaborately designed crests, columns and a bell tower, have been deteriorating for decades. The walls are peeling, cobwebs cover the carved wooden cloak closets and wooden rafters can be seen through broken plaster.

The complex of three buildings is right in the middle of an incongruously modern elementary school campus, built with typically spare California architecture.

Prominent signs placed on the walls of the old site sum up the situation: "Public Notice--This building does not meet the structural standards imposed by law for earthquake safety for instructional classes."

Bringing it up to code could cost up to $1.2 million, said Supt. Robert L. French. And even if restored, the site would only yield three classrooms, while twice that many portables could fit on the site.

Earlier this month, administrators recommended tearing down the building to make way for portable classrooms. A bell tower and the original facade could possibly be saved and made into a monument on the site, they said.

But a growing number of residents and city officials said the building has intrinsic value as well.

"This is the oldest public building in Villa Park," said Councilwoman Patricia L. Bortle. . . . "We should save it if we can."

Linda Davis, a school district trustee and a Villa Park resident, said she will suggest to her board colleagues that they hire an architect with expertise in historic buildings to study the site. The campus has room elsewhere for some portables, which would give the community time to raise funds, she added.

"We have a lot of passion, but no money," Davis said of the group, now called the Villa Park School Restoration Committee.

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