ARCADIA — Imagine discovering computers in a classroom with wisteria hanging from the window grills, or studying music in a basement den complete with stone fireplace and mural-covered walls.
Since 1940, students at the exclusive Anoakia School on the 20-acre Anita Baldwin Estate have had limited access to the stately 50-room mansion, which was once home to the daughter of Lucky Baldwin, Arcadia's founder and first mayor.
But Lowry McCaslin, who owns the property, wants to develop the valuable parcel, and the children attending summer school this year will be the last group of students to use the grounds.
The property, on the northwest corner of Foothill Boulevard and Baldwin Avenue, is probably the largest in the city zoned for development of single-family homes, said Arcadia Associate Planner Will Wong. No formal plans have yet been submitted for city review, he said.
Officials at the private school, the ownership of which McCaslin has turned over to its administrators, learned of the development plans about two years ago and have searched for more than a year for a new site. This spring, the school was invited to become a tenant at the New Life Assembly of God church in Duarte. But the school's fate is still uncertain.
School officials last week narrowly won approval from the Duarte Planning Commission to operate on the three-acre church property at 822 Bradbourne Ave. But neighbors, concerned with an expected increase in noise and traffic, are appealing the decision before the City Council. A public hearing on the appeal is scheduled for July 10.
Although school officials are optimistic that the council will stand by the commission's decision to grant a conditional-use permit, the school faces closure if the appeal is successful.
"That's our last hope," said Kitty Dillavou, a school director and one of five McCaslin daughters who graduated from Anoakia.
Parents pay from $3,000 to $4,800 a year for their children to attend the school, which signed up 280 students last year, she said. About 170 youngsters have already enrolled for September. The school, which changed its name to Anita Oaks School effective June 18 and is now a nonprofit enterprise, is still accepting registrations for youngsters for preschool through eighth grade.
Teachers and students alike said they'll miss the ambience of the 1917 manor, which has glass door panels etched with peacocks and ornate sconces adorning the walls.
"I don't know any other school that's on a mansion estate," music teacher Andy DuBois said. "If the teachers had their way, we would stay here, without any question." He holds classes in a basement room in the mansion where fairies and elves frolic alongside medieval kings and court jesters in a Maynard Dixon mural covering all four walls.
"There's a lot of character to it," DuBois said of the spacious carpeted room with the massive stone fireplace at one end.
The adjacent hallway, a bowling alley in its heyday, now serves as a school library.
Nine-year-old Justin Allsop, the oldest of five siblings attending the school, said his Spanish, art and music lessons are more fun because they are conducted in the mansion.
"It doesn't really make me feel like I'm in school," he said. "I sort of feel like I'm in a park." His mother, Karen, had pulled her children from schools in the Pasadena Unified School District last year because she wanted them to receive more teacher attention. She will continue sending her children to the school if it is established in Duarte, even with the longer drive from her Sierra Madre home.
"Where they are is beautiful," she said, "But it doesn't matter what the classroom looks like, it's what happens in it."
McCaslin, 82, a La Canada Flintridge real estate investor who bought the property in 1940, changed the name of a girls' preparatory school already on the site to Anoakia School. He had earlier served five years as manager of all the Baldwin properties, which encompassed hundreds of acres throughout the state.
Anoakia was a boarding school until the the late 1960s, with the students using the upper floor as a dormitory and having their meals in the lavish dining rooms of the mansion, Dillavou said. The school became coeducational in 1967.
But costs of maintaining the campus have been high. McCaslin said he spent close to $200,000 to satisfy fire and earthquake requirements after the Whittier quake in 1987, and has since rented trailers for classrooms because the four out-buildings became untenable for classes.
Although the mansion suffered no damage from earthquakes, restoring it to its original splendor would cost at least $1 million, he said.
"I've enjoyed the school," he said. "I hope they land on their feet and do a good job."
He said he has received seven proposals from developers in the past two years.
"I have decided that because of my age and all, I want to get (the property) in good shape," he said. "I made a little money from the school, but nothing in comparison with the value of the place."
He said he would prefer that the 17,700-square-foot mansion stay intact.
"It's unusually good and has some historical value. I'd like to see this remain an integral part of the development," he said, suggesting that it might be renovated into a recreation center for the residents in what he envisions will be an upscale, walled, gated community.
"This will be an enclave," he said. "I will make it very special."