October 19, 2015

L.A.'s Larchmont Charter High School

A Lesson in Adaptive Reuse and Urbanism

Kids in the hall

photo by: Nico Marques/Photekt

Each panel of this wall of windows is operable, providing fresh air to the school.

When architects Chava Danielson and Eric Haas of DSH // architecture found the Welton Becket-designed New York Life Insurance Company Building in Los Angeles, it was, by Haas’ own admission, “in very bad shape.”

The duo had been searching the city for the new home of the Larchmont Charter High School -- no easy task in an expensive city with a limited budget -- and were so convinced of the building’s potential, they started mapping out their redesign before the board even approved the location.

The building’s open floor plan offered a lot of opportunity. With its central courtyard, one was never more than 18 feet from a window.

A classroom at the Larchmont Charter School

photo by: Nico Marques/Photekt

Classrooms are filled with light and air.

The couryard at the Larchmont Charter School

photo by: Taiyo Watanabe

The school's central courtyard provides light and a sense of community to the school.

“Light, air, and the quality of space make a huge difference in what goes on in the classroom,” says Danielson, who focused her redesign on getting light and air to flow through the building while staying disciplined with the use of space.

The charter school’s board also wanted to situate themselves in a neighborhood that could stand some reinvestment.

When the structure was built in 1955, this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard was intended as an elegant row for company headquarters, but over the years, many moved to suburban office parks. Now, however, the neighborhood has seen strong progress, and the school enjoys access to a new subway stop, a renovated park and gymnasium, and a restored library across the street.

“The usefulness of that corridor is really being rediscovered, so it’s kind of an idea of reinvigorating and adaptively reusing urban space,” says Danielson.

“It’s exciting for the kids to be a part of that, and it’s an educational moment for them in terms of architecture and urbanism.”

Danielson and Haas realized the building’s shell and core were solid, but the interior had seen more than its fair share of insensitive modifications. Still, they preserved and restored what they could.

Roughly half of the main entrance -- with its walnut paneling, terrazzo floors, and imported Italian terrazzo tiles -- was saved and refreshed while Daneilson and Haas designed a compliment for the portion of the space that was unsalvageable.

They also saw the value in Becket’s original aluminum curtain wall with center pivot windows. Every window panel was rehabbed and remains operable, which brings fresh air to each classroom.

“Just everything about that curtain wall, if you’re an architect you understand immediately the amount of care and detail that’s in that,” says Danielson.

The project took a year-and-a-half from site selection to completion.

“There’s a design story in this school that the kids are proud of,” Danielson says. “Whereas there aren’t that many high schools where they talk about architecture, they do at this one because they’re in it, and it’s kind of lovely.”

Students in the hall

photo by: Nico Marques/Photekt

Students enjoy a light-filled hallway at the Larchmont Charter High School in L.A.

David Weible headshot

David Weible is a former content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation is inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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