History Lessons

History Lessons

An elementary school has opened on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel, the first of three.
Tim Street-Porter

It’s only been about three years since Myron Hunt’s Mediterranean-style Ambassador Hotel—home of the Rat Pack, the Oscars, and, more somberly, the shooting of RFK—was unceremoniously torn down. But already, out of its rubble the skeleton of a major new school complex is rising. With an elementary, middle, and high school, the Central LA Learning Center No.1, as it’s called, borrows much of its form from the immense Ambassador Hotel whose decorative fittings were sold at a public auction in September 2005.

On the south end of the complex, the first phase, the new elementary school, opened its doors to 800 K-5 students on September 9. The two-story, 92,000-square-foot project was designed by Pasadena-based Gonzalez Goodale Architects, who are working on all three new schools in the 4000+ student complex, which share cultural and athletic facilities.

The school is unusually transparent for its urban setting, though suffused with light as a result.

Considering its historic site, the K-5 school is notably contemporary, hinting at a new direction for the LAUSD and a focus on modern design throughout its multibillion dollar bond program. “We’re helping create a new image for the LAUSD,” commented project architect Chung Chang.

The building is clad throughout with dark zinc paneling—which wraps around most of its corners—offset with painted plaster and perforated metal flashes of orange, gray, yellow-green, and white. Inside a lofty entrance portal, the school stresses transparency and connection: Most of the public spaces are open air, including outdoor hallways, an exposed grand stair, open flanking stairs, al fresco cafeteria seating, and skylit canopies. The east and west branches of the school are connected by two large courtyards. Circular skylights and perforations above provide more exposure.

Behind that large curtain wall is a double height library.

The double-height library, patterned in colorful orange and white and fronted with a large glass curtain wall, is the most dramatic public space in the school. Meanwhile, on top of the parking lot is a large track and playing field, which will be shared with the adjacent middle school. Public art pieces like murals and a large mosaic embedded into a play area add decoratively instructive touches.

The K-5 school, which houses two pilot schools—the NOW Academy and the UCLA Community School—literally looks up to the middle and high schools, which are several feet higher in grade. Those will be finished next fall. Much of the middle school’s exterior features similar wraparound zinc panels, while the 2,440-student high school is shaped to echo the form of the Ambassador, with its monumental entry and angled wings.

Finishes, however, will be contemporary, highlighted by a multi-floor glass curtain wall that will allow onlookers on Wilshire Boulevard to see into the classrooms in use. The school auditorium will take the same dimensions of the former Cocoanut Grove nightclub, incorporating that classic club’s eastern wall and one of its original canopies. As they prepare for future events, administrators will perhaps be challenged in a good way to compete with the ghosts of a past that once inhabited the nightclub.


A version of this article appeared in AN 08_10.28.2009_CA.