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STRUCTURES : Function and Grace : The Ventura High School campus is a mixture of Streamline Moderne and later ground-hugging styles.

September 26, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

School is in session. The lunch bell--well, the lunch tone--sounds, and the student body spills out onto the grass and palm tree-lined quad area of Ventura High School. Most people here probably have little time or interest to look around or dwell on the heritage of the 61-year-old, 33-acre property. That's the story of our lives.

But down there on the Main Street campus sits a slice of history, as told through architecture both in existence and in memory. Vintages vary, from several buildings of dramatic scale built in 1939 to the lower, land-hugging buildings of the late '50s forming a perimeter around the lawn area.

Throughout the years, especially from the mid-'30s to the late '50s, additions and changes were made, adding up to a composite school. Somehow, the whole doesn't crumble from architectural incoherence. What you find here are different eras, different agendas and different definitions of utilitarian architecture.

What you won't see, except in wistful archival photos, is the school's first structure. Built in 1930, the original wing-shaped brick building is now a ghost. Set diagonally, facing the corner of Main and Catalina, the huge two-story building became host to climbing tendrils of ivy. The architectural role model here clearly looked backward and eastward, in a classically Ivy League vein.

Fittingly, the showcase building represented a galvanizing of educational forces in Ventura County, serving as both the new high school and the junior college.

Its days were numbered, though, because it failed to measure up to the Field Act, aimed at razing structures that did not meet standards for earthquake safety.

According to UC Santa Barbara architectural historian David Gebhard, the Field Act itself wasn't always invoked with the purest of motives.

"The act certainly was used by engineers, contractors, developers and builders for all sorts of advantages. That is, their advantages," Gebhard said. "They played the game well. Most buildings, as the old Ventura County Courthouse exemplifies, with intelligence and modest expenditures, can be updated. But that doesn't help developers and architects." The courthouse was another near-victim in the earthquake wars.

The irony is that the old school building proved sturdier than expected, and it wasn't going down without a fight.

Jacqueline Kelly, a 1944 graduate and local historian, remembers the demolition in 1958. "I could tell you brick-by-brick how it came down," she said. "I watched it. They could hardly knock it down. The big steel ball went all day long, all week long, and barely got it down. I have some of those bricks in my fireplace."

In 1958, there arose in its place a then-popular open space plan for public-school architecture. In Southern California, where the weather is friendly almost year-round, and where school property is (or at least was) plentiful, the sightlines of schools turned horizontal. The thinking shifted away from the indoor-oriented, multiple-storied buildings of old.

As it stands now, the star of the show at Ventura High is the relatively massive and impressive auditorium, looming like a cornerstone edifice on the corner of Catalina and Poli. Along with the elegant, long gymnasium building to the rear of the campus, the auditorium was built in 1939, with a generous percentage of funding coming from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.

For his design, Ventura-based architect Harold Burkett kept within the WPA philosophy with a Streamline Moderne-type design, which makes its impact without ornamentation. Virtually the only ornamental touch is the relief sculpture by the Californian artist Mako, high over the rectangular entryway. In it, a goddess holds the torch of learning above the happy/tragic masks of theater. Thus, education entertains and protects culture.

Coming on the heels of the more extroverted Art Deco movement and amid the Moderne movement that burgeoned in Southern California architecture of the '30s, a structure such as Burkett's signified a paring down to geometric essentials. There are volumes within volumes, cubes within cubes, in the auditorium design. A wall of windows faces Catalina Street like tapestry made of flapping panels. The entrance is announced by a huge but perfectly symmetrical stagelike entryway, a starkly theatrical concept of a portal.

Blessed with good acoustics, the auditorium has been used over the years for concerts and, during the war years, War Bond rallies. By night, the public comes to school to hear music. By day, the students continue to broaden their horizons.

At age 52 (a fairly ripe old age for a building in the youthful playground of Southern California), the auditorium is one of those comforting Ventura landmarks that mean many things to different observers. Although it hasn't yet been deemed an official historical landmark, the people know.

In one interpretation, it embodies a heady architectural period, as the Depression was easing and before another World War seemed imminent. And, for history-hungry locals, the auditorium has survived earthquakes and earthquake paranoia and lives on in a relative state of grace. Function and grace. What else can you ask of a public building?

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