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Rebuilding of Garfield High's fire-damaged auditorium to begin

Garfield High physical education teacher Rosa Velasquez and students from her drill and cheer teams were two weeks from staging a production of "Grease" in the school's historic auditorium when a three-alarm arson blaze gutted the East Los Angeles landmark.

That was four years ago. Since then, her students have performed in the gymnasium, in classrooms and even on muddy fields as funding issues, insurance disputes and other hurdles have delayed reconstruction.

On Monday, two days after classes ended, work was finally scheduled to get underway on a $50-million rebuilding project that promises a new, state-of-the-art facility as well as a replacement of the main administration building, which was connected to the auditorium and also sustained fire damage.

The reopening, scheduled for the 2012-13 academic year, cannot come soon enough for Velasquez and others for whom the 1925 auditorium exemplified Garfield High and its gritty but striving East Los Angeles community.

"As a Garfield student myself, it had a lot of memories and we were devastated when it burned," said Velasquez, a onetime Garfield cheerleader who graduated in 1974 before returning in 1993 to teach. "It's going to be very nice for the drill and cheer team and other students to experience brand new facilities."

The new building is a modern design of gray and beige glazed masonry that will include a graphic glass wall with images of the performing arts. The nearly 1,400-seat facility will include a large stage, orchestra pit, sophisticated sound and lighting systems and a black box theater. The project also includes a memorial plaza, named after Garfield's legendary math teacher Jaime Escalante, whose success with his calculus students was chronicled in the movie "Stand and Deliver." Escalante died last year.

Funding comes from the Los Angeles Unified School District's $19.5-billion school construction and modernization program. The district is in arbitration with several insurers over more than $20 million in claims stemming from the fire, and officials still hope to be reimbursed for part of the building costs.

The burned-out auditorium and the administration building, which also housed classrooms, were demolished last summer. Since then, administrators and several classrooms have been relocated to 36 temporary buildings, known as Bungalow City.

Garfield Principal Jose Huerta said the school and community are excited about the prospect of new facilities. But he acknowledged that nostalgia runs deep for the old structure, graced with paneled ceilings, ornate plastered molding, colorful murals and Depression-era chandeliers.

"For a lot of our kids, their parents and great-grandparents came here, so they all heard stories about the auditorium," Huerta said. "It represented the heart of the school and community, and that's gone."

This year's graduating class is the first that never used the auditorium. But student body president Jennifer Ontiveros said she is fortunate that she and others were fortunate to be able to provide input into the final design.

"I have neighbors who came to the school, and I heard amazing stories about the auditorium, how it was a piece of history and the different pieces of artwork on the walls, so it's sad I wasn't able to experience it," said Ontiveros Jennifer, 17, who will attend Dartmouth. "But I think the students who follow us are going to be very happy."

"We're looking forward to our students feeling that their home is now their castle … where they can feel that they are respected and deserve to have the best — and that our community deserves the best," said Assistant Principal Frances Vilaubi, one of the administrators who rushed to the campus when the fire broke out and witnessed the still-smoldering ruins. (A 17-year-old Garfield freshman was sentenced to juvenile camp and ordered to pay restitution for setting the blaze.)

Velasquez already has an idea of one of the first events she'd like to see in the new building: "We had been planning 'Grease' before the auditorium burned, so it would be perfect to bring it back to the stage."

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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