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Convent Building Will Be Only a Memory

August 24, 1986|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

ALHAMBRA — It was almost a century ago that the distinctive mission-style tower of Ramona Convent School arose on what had been a nondescript bluff overlooking a remote area east of Los Angeles.

Since its last addition was built in 1913, the four-story convent building has stood basically unchanged amid the torrent of progress that has surrounded the once-isolated hilltop with dense development and a bustling freeway.

It also has been a source of nostalgia for alumnae of the Catholic girls school and for long-time Alhambra residents.

However, when the Ramona Convent School celebrates its centennial in 1989, no sign of its distinctive towers will remain.

Safety Concerns Cited

Citing concern over earthquake safety, the school's board of directors has decided to demolish the building. Work is expected to begin next June.

In an announcement sent recently to alumnae and parents of current students, school officials said the building's walls--unreinforced brick covered with stucco--do not meet seismic safety standards contained in the Field Act, a state law governing public schools.

As a parochial school, Ramona Convent is not legally bound by the act and may be eligible for status as a historical structure, making it exempt from some state seismic codes. But school officials said they feel a "moral obligation to provide a safe environment" for the 600 girls who attend classes there.

Alumnae and historical building preservationists have reacted to the announcement with dismay, though most have resigned themselves to the demolition of the building, which currently houses administrative offices and music rehearsal rooms.

"Those of us who are deeply steeped in the history of Ramona and of the San Gabriel Valley are heartsick that the original structure is going to be torn down," said Mildred Harrigan, an alumna whose daughter also attended the school.

Ruth Barry, a former president of the Alhambra Historical Society whose two daughters attended Ramona Convent, said the announcement was "terribly shocking," adding, "I'm sad to see this happen to the school."

Ramona Convent officials say that they regret having to raze the building, but maintain that it is the only affordable option.

'Strong Emotional Ties'

"There are strong emotional ties to a building and its history, but I think people understand when we say we have to spend money judiciously," said Sister Marion Patrick Connors, the school's financial officer.

"We felt that if we were going to spend a lot of money . . . we should construct a new building instead of pouring megabucks into an old building and then still have an old building when we're finished," Connors said.

Renovating the building to make it earthquake-safe would cost $3 million and involved removing the roof, stripping the interior and exterior walls and inserting steel beams into the masonry, said Sister Rose Frances Lamar, the school's development director.

Such renovation of the 100,000-square-foot building would cost "about a million-plus" more than the school's current plan to build a new, 10,000-square-foot administration building on the site next summer, said the school's principal, Sister Annunciata Bussman. The new building will cost at least $1.25 million, she said.

"Another factor was that we do not need all the space," Bussman said, adding that the top two floors of the four-story building have not been used since Ramona Convent ceased operating as a boarding school four years ago.

School officials originally proposed removing the building's top two floors and renovating the remainder of the structure, Lamar said.

However, that plan, which would have cost about $2 million, was rejected as too expensive by the school's board of directors, she said.

Because Ramona Convent is operated by the Sisters of the Holy Names--a Canadian order that operates 16 schools worldwide--all major capital improvements must be approved by the order's California province in Los Gatos and by its main headquarters in Montreal.

Bussman said that it would have been inappropriate to spend additional money on the old building, particularly because Ramona Convent--which operates on a $1.5-million annual budget--is still in debt from a recent $2-million program to construct and renovate other school buildings.

"There are other needs--teacher salaries and scholarships," she said. "We are an educational institution, not just a building. . . . Our mission is to offer quality to the women we educate."

The school is funded entirely by contributions and tuition of $2,200 per academic year, Bussman said.

Unlike many Catholic schools, Ramona Convent is operated independently of the Los Angeles Diocese and does not receive funding from it, she added.

No Campaign

So far, no local historical societies have campaigned to save the building.

Ruth Ann Lehrer, director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, said that the school building may be eligible for designation as a state historic landmark or for inclusion on the national register of historic places.

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