Insurance dispute takes center stage in auditorium drama

Share via

Garfield High School has not hosted a play, a musical performance or an assembly in its historic auditorium since an arson fire gutted it nearly 2 1/2 years ago.

A burned-out shell -- its walls shored up with a latticework of scaffolding and steel beams -- is all that remains from the three-alarm blaze that caused an estimated $30 million in damage to the East Los Angeles landmark.

After pledges to rebuild the facility, a benefit concert by Los Lobos and donations from boxer Oscar De La Hoya, among others, the Los Angeles Unified School District is mired in an insurance dispute that could create additional delays and leave the school system footing more of the bill.


Community members and alumni, who long relied on the auditorium for neighborhood meetings and events, are frustrated -- as are school administrators and students.

“Assemblies, theatricals, rehearsals, dance, community shows -- we’re mostly not doing it or doing it in a substandard way,” Principal Michael B. Summe said. “We have fewer dance classes, and this may threaten our drama program. The plans for the new auditorium are incredible. But I can’t get a drama teacher to come here and create a program. How many years do I tell her to wait?”

L.A. Unified contends that the 1925 auditorium needs to be rebuilt from the ground to meet state building codes. But nine insurers insist that the walls are salvageable and could support a new building, district officials said. The difference in cost is considerable.

A mediation session is scheduled for November in a final attempt to resolve the impasse. If differences can’t be worked out, rebuilding may be put off longer.

The insurance companies declined to comment on the insurance claim, the nature of the dispute with the district or the amount of money involved, according to an attorney, Jess B. Millikan, who is representing them.

Demolition was to have been completed this fall, with construction beginning next year. Despite the uncertainty of recovering costs -- estimated by the district at $46 million -- designs for a new auditorium are almost complete and will be submitted soon for state approval, said facilities chief Guy Mehula. But in a further hitch, Garfield’s main administration building, which is attached to the auditorium, must be retrofitted to meet earthquake standards, and officials have not determined the level of demolition needed.


Insurers have made some payouts, which have covered the costs of designs, Mehula said.

But their suggestions for reconstruction would not meet requirements of the Division of the State Architect, which oversees safety and accessibility standards for schools, said Mark Hovatter, the director of maintenance and operations.

“We’ve done our own testing and we’ve had many outside experts come in and do evaluations, and they have advised what to do to replace the building,” Hovatter said. “We’ve done a design based on the presumption we’re going to have to rebuild the entire auditorium. We want to make the community whole and give them back the quality they had.”

If the school district sues insurers, a new source of funding will be needed to keep plans on track -- at a time when L.A. Unified and the state are facing severe budget problems. L.A. Unified has a number of school construction projects in line and would have to decide if the auditorium should take priority.

Teachers and students have learned to adapt.

Performing arts teacher Carolyn McKnight holds her West African dance class in an auto shop with a hydraulic lift embedded in its concrete floor. The concrete is not good for her knees or those of the students, she said. A theater production of “Tom Sawyer” by the Geffen Playhouse in January may have to be held in the gym.

“An auditorium is the cultural heart of a school, and it drives a stake through the school culture if you don’t have that kind of gathering place for shared experiences,” McKnight said.

Robert Ibarra, 18, a member of the drama club, said a recent performance was an uncomfortable event in which almost 100 students squeezed into the auto shop without air conditioning. He has fond memories of the auditorium.


“I got to enjoy it for a year as a freshman,” he said. “It was really beautiful and had that old classy feeling they used to have back then.”

A 17-year-old boy who was a freshman at the school was sentenced to juvenile camp and ordered to pay restitution for setting the blaze.

Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), who grew up near Garfield, said he was shocked to learn that the school district was still haggling with insurance companies and that rebuilding from the May 2007 fire was not yet underway. He said he would ask the Assembly Insurance Committee, of which he is a member, to summon insurers and the school district to a hearing.

“At least it might become clear whether there are viable arguments on one or the other side,” he said.

The auditorium’s burned-out hull, opened to the sky when the roof collapsed, now mainly acts as a roost for pigeons, with remnants of scorched carpeting, the blackened proscenium and the singed main stage curtain still in place. The handcrafted wooden seats are piled behind the stage to make way for huge steel beams that brace the walls and are supported on poured concrete blocks.

The building’s original architectural details included a paneled ceiling, ornate plastered molding, murals and valuable Depression-era chandeliers. But the auditorium was always more than just a building; it was a haven in a community often beset by hardship. It hosted future presidents and senators, was the incubator of the band Los Lobos and was a backdrop for the exploits of former math teacher Jaime Escalante and his calculus students, who were chronicled in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver.”


Student achievement has fallen below state standards in recent years, and the school is among those eligible to be taken over by outside operators under a recent school board policy. District officials said any change in management would not affect rebuilding plans.

School board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, whose district includes Garfield, said the school system should have moved more aggressively to resolve the matter. She has asked for a staff report within two weeks on funding options if the insurance dispute is not settled.

“For so many reasons, East L.A. always feels last and [feels] that we don’t provide support to students,” she said. “We don’t want to let them down again.”