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School's walls remain steeped in history

The white courtyard building and bell tower at Newport Harbor High are replicas. But the two coastal-themed murals outside the principal's office are original pieces dating to the Great Depression.

October 14, 2009|Tony Barboza

The art could have been history.

Two 1930s New Deal mosaics adorning a courtyard at Newport Harbor High School were in jeopardy after inspectors determined the school's old building wouldn't withstand a major earthquake. The original structures of the Gothic Spanish-inspired Newport Beach campus and the artistic flourishes built into its walls and floors, inspectors said, would have to be demolished.

An outcry by students, parents and alumni ensued. They hated the idea of their beloved bright white campus, with its 99-foot-tall spired bell tower and treasured art, being destroyed.

"The very fact that the building had to come down was absolutely appalling to many of the community members," said Principal Michael Vossen. "People love this building; it's an icon. If that has to happen, there are things that we have to preserve."

So before the structure was torn down in 2007, administrators saved the tile mosaics depicting men and women by the seashore.

With students exiled to portable classrooms, art conservators cut the large tile murals out of the old building, lifted them out with a crane in a huge concrete chunk and incorporated them into the wall of a new $55-million building, a nearly exact replica of the old one.

"I can't imagine anyone would tear down the building, and say 'Too bad those murals aren't there, we sure enjoyed them when we had them,' " said Don Pender, the architect overseeing the project.

The restored mosaics, "Three Fishermen" and "Three Women Gathering at the Sea Shore," crafted from thousands of tiny tiles by Arthur Ames and his then-fiancee Jean Goodwin in 1937, now rest in the wall of an entryway to the new building, which was dedicated last week.

With Depression-era buildings increasingly in need of replacement, officials often struggle with how to modernize the facilities while preserving murals, mosaics and sculptures from an era when the federal government sponsored hundreds of thousands of pieces of art to employ out-of-work artists.

Newport Harbor High is not the only institution keeping a watchful eye on the artistic heritage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal economic recovery programs.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has an inventory of more than three dozen New Deal paintings, sculptures and murals to be mindful of during school renovations.

And last year Long Beach schools began a survey to catalog its federally funded Depression-era art. A consultant has discovered seven murals at six schools so far and is developing a preservation plan.

At Newport Harbor High's idyllic, breezy campus, there are hopes that the mosaics' preservation helps fulfill one of the federal art program's original goals: to bring young people into contact with works of art on a daily basis.

"It was intended to be used by the students at this school;, let's make sure that it's restored and being enjoyed by the students," said Pender, the architect.

Though many of the original adornments were incorporated into the new school -- a compass rose floor tile, colorful dedication tiles, light fixtures -- not everything could be saved. Some monuments, plaques and chandeliers had to go.

But the pair of coastal-themed mosaics, which for decades have served as fitting embellishments at a school where the mascot is a sailor and the yearbook is called "The Galleon," will remain.

At a dedication ceremony after school last week, Newport-Mesa Unified School District notables and politicians gathered in the courtyard, congratulating themselves on completing the $55-million building.

Few marveled at the mosaics, or even noticed where they now reside, framed by dark wood in the entryway near the principal's office. As if they've always been there.

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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