Garfield High prepares to build a new chapter

Times Staff Writer

Before it was gutted in an arson blaze almost exactly a year ago, Garfield High School's historic auditorium embodied the soul of both its students and its working-class East Los Angeles community.

It played host to school assemblies and colorful folklorico dance performances. It was a neighborhood meeting place and the spawning ground of the band Los Lobos. Math teacher Jaime Escalante, whose award-winning calculus students were portrayed in the film "Stand and Deliver," used the space as a rallying ground for political causes.

This week, school officials and architects unveiled a design that seeks to reclaim all of those functions in a state-of-the-art theater that retains many features of the original 1925 structure.

"Our goal is to combine the essence of the historical building with modern architecture," said Javan Nabili, in charge of the design team for the Irvine-based firm gkkworks.

The preliminary plan, presented at a community meeting last week, includes sophisticated lighting and sound systems, a larger stage to facilitate music and dance productions and improved sight lines.

It also seeks to replicate the decorative paneled ceiling, the Depression-era chandeliers, wooden seating and ornate trim of the original space.

The idea is to retain the auditorium's place as a center of activity in its East L.A. neighborhood while providing Garfield students with a facility that will compete with the best arts-themed high schools, said noted theater designer John Sergio Fisher, who is consulting on the project.

Claudia Garay, whose 15-year-old daughter, Rebecca, attends the school, said she was satisfied with the presentation. "What they have now looks promising," said Garay, whose older son was a folklorico performer who used the auditorium every day.

The auditorium was destroyed May 20. A 17-year-old student who was a freshman at the school was sentenced to six months in a juvenile camp and ordered to pay restitution for setting the blaze.

Damage was estimated at $30 million.

Left unclear by the project team is the price tag for reconstruction.

The Fund to Rebuild Garfield Auditorium has collected $275,000 in private donations, including $195,000 from a Los Lobos benefit concert in October. But although insurance is expected to cover most of the costs, the Los Angeles Unified School District is still negotiating specific claims.

Allowing time for those talks -- as well as demolition, final design and state approvals -- groundbreaking for the new facility is not expected before late 2010. It could open a year later. The projected timeline was a source of concern during a question-and-answer session, with one father noting that students at the 5,000-pupil year-round school are hard-pressed to find space for activities.

Garfield Principal Omar M. Del Cueto acknowledged that wear and tear on the gym -- used as a stand-in for many functions, including state testing -- was beginning to take a toll. Del Cueto said students, parents and faculty will need patience.

"The auditorium is in the heart of the campus, and this is the first time the district is going to undertake a construction project of this magnitude inside a moving, functioning year-round school," Del Cueto said.


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