L.A. Designer: Chava Danielson Transforms Welton Becket Building into School

A new L.A. school occupies a retrofitted midcentury Welton Becket building.

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It’s back to school time for many of L.A.’s K-12 students, and those attending Larchmont Charter High School in L.A.’s Westlake neighborhood will be spending their second year in classrooms in a converted office building originally designed by architect Welton Becket in 1955 for New York Life Insurance.

The retrofit was designed by Chava Danielson, of the firm DSH, whose son attends the school, and in a city where the sprawling outdoor campus is the norm Larchmont Charter High School is a rare vertical high school. 

All of the school’s classrooms are located within the building, but amenities including the school’s library and gym are located across the street in existing public spaces.

DnA talked to Chava about how the school acquired the space, what the Welton Becket design teaches us about “green” design, and what obstacles she ran into in converting a former office space into a school. 

Note: The Los Angeles Times article below was from October 1954 and about the original Welton Becket building.

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DnA: Tell me the backstory of Larchmont Charter High School and how you got that space?

Chava Danielson: Larchmont Charter is a charter school, and while charters are public schools, they have to find and fund their own sites. So it is always a challenge with what they can afford.

The building we chose was built by Welton Becket for New York Life Insurance Company in 1957, but it was completed in 1955, during a time when people thought the mid-Wilshire area was going to have all these elegant company headquarters. So when I worked with the board of Larchmont Charter to look for a site, mid-Wilshire became a reasonable location because the real estate is less expensive in that area, but it is still close to transportation, as well as other amenities that a school needs from the city. We also needed to find places for the kids to play and find library space and find auditorium space. Charter schools can’t provide all those things.

So when we saw this building, I really saw it in a way that a lot of other people didn’t, because it was pretty run down and it was very chopped up. This building has great bones, but it had been used by a bunch of different tenants who utilized it poorly.

The great thing about this building was that there was a really progressive-minded architect who designed it in the first place, and we’ve been able to kind of resuscitate it, which included taking the building down to the studs and retrofitting this incredible operable curtain wall that allows the entire building to be flooded with light and air in a way that a more conventional building doesn’t allow.  What we have is this charter school that is embedded in an office building that is really embedded in the city that has these incredible views and this access to light and air.

In terms of the building itself, there is kind of an architectural pedigree that the kids learn about and can appreciate.

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DnA:  Describe the bare bones of the building that convinced you that this run-down building was something that was worth preserving and turning into something else?

CD: The building has a really unconventional floor plan layout which put an open-air court in the center of the building. The entire court is faced with a custom-designed curtain wall with operable windows so it has pivoting, center pivot windows. To have an operable curtain wall in the first place is very unconventional, but the entire core of the building which was usually a dark space, is completely open.  The exterior has the same kind of curtain wall with operable, pivoting windows on both the south and the east sides. The west side is completely solid and the south side the curtain wall has levers. The whole building has a relationship to its environment that we are only now getting back to.

If we were in a climate control class in architecture school, what was done in this building is what the climate control teacher would tell you to do, which has been ignored for a long time. People have been trying to solve cooling and ventilation with reflective glass or just air conditioning.

Then there was a fire-rated, double-loaded corridor that was all closed and dark and the rooms were off that spine and organized in such a way that you never had this understanding of how the light and the air moves through the building. Nor did you get a sense of the views from this great building of a park across the street, the CNA building  (now the Superior Court building), the first congregational church and other buildings.  Looking at the plan and understanding how the building was put together, it was clear we just had to take it down to the studs, take it down to the frame.  It is clear that the building could be occupied in a different way and really taken advantage of.  There was something very special, that it wasn’t just another box-like office building on Wilshire Boulevard.

DnA: Have you designed a school before?

CD: Yes, I actually have been working with Larchmont Charter for many years and so I’ve helped them retrofit a number of sites to be schools. I’ve also worked with St. James’ School on a preschool campus and we have worked with Para Los Ninos. But this is certainly the most ambitious project.

DnA: Were there any unique challenges you encountered with this school as compared to the other ones?

CD: The school year is unforgiving. In a funny way it is a little bit like opening a store for Christmas; that date doesn’t move. The school has to open when it has to open, if you miss that date it’s a whole other year. The speed with which the project had to be designed and executed was incredibly challenging. We had to be very creative with the budget, and as I said what is really unique is that we were able to occupy this building in a way that everything that was innovative and progressive about this building was able to be utilized. The kids have this real relationship to light and air while at the same time it is very important, when you design a learning environment, that the kids are able to concentrate.  The acoustics and the lighting have to be sufficient that real learning can take place, and yet at the same time they get to understand where they are in the city which was our goal.

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DnA: What are some of the specific obstacles you came across in converting an office building into a school?

CD: Office buildings are very compact, and in schools you need all kinds of expansive spaces for kids to just gather. Those things are taken care of in an office building by separate rooms. What we did, as much as we could afford it, was widen the hallways, and we have a hallway on the south face with windows and those become the gathering spaces for these kids.

But the truth is, there’s a kind of efficiency that an office building is designed to accommodate. They are designed for people who are just moving through that corridor to get to their offices. But in the day in the life of a student, you really need the efficiency, because kids have to get to class, but you also just need them to be able to take a breath. You also need spaces for them to gather, for them to bump into each other, for things to happen, which is an important part of the learning environment. So we used the building the way it was meant to be, but we altered it just enough for those other kinds of encounters to take place. And doing that requires a certain deft hand to get that to work properly.

DnA: Tell me about what it was like to design a vertical high school. Do students experience this differently? 

CD: Well, there are challenges. There is an aspiration to build a ‘social stair’ – a steel stair hung within that space that would provide an actual connection between floors. 

Of course it is a new school and everything is in its early stages. The building opened, combining both middle and high school years, and is growing into being organized solely as a high school – so all of these ideas are still in transition. But we’re learning a lot from the students and teachers and how they occupy the project. It’s really very exciting to watch.

DnA: Schools in Southern California tend to be these sprawling campuses where there’s a lot of outdoor space.  Do you think you achieved enough outdoor and gathering spaces?

CD: Well, this goes to the challenge that any charter school has, which is that they very rarely have the kind of budget to afford a site with the appropriate amount of outdoor space for kids. So one of the reasons I was such an advocate for this site is that it’s across the street from Lafayette Park, a public park, and in that park there’s a really good auditorium (designed by the late Steven Kanner). So this campus pays a little bit of rent or a fee to use the basketball court and gymnasium there.

And you know, I think it’s the way of the future.  I think the days in which we have public money to build an auditorium for a high school that is empty most of the time and is locked off behind a chain-linked fence and the neighborhood can’t use it–those things are a way of the past.  We just are never going to have those funds again, and I think the idea of sharing public facilities is the way we’re going to be able to build libraries and auditoriums and parks and soccer fields that we need in the future.  I think this overlapping of public use and school use is exactly the way we revitalize these neighborhoods and the city.

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DnA: If you were working on a project for LAUSD, would you have been able to use this kind of patchy network of utilizing public spaces around you, or would there be tough regulations?

CD: I’m speaking as a citizen, and as somebody interested in urban issues, and it’s beyond the purview of what an architect is hired to do, but I can say that I believe that the LAUSD has very strict rules. They can make a campus site that’s large enough to do what they need to provide the kind of fields and library and auditorium and all of these extra spaces for their campus. What I’m saying is it would be interesting if government entities could combine forces, because I think that we could serve the public better if we were able to multi-task these spaces and use them for overlapping purposes. As cities continue to gentrify, we really have to think about that because the sprawling campus is a really suburban model.

DnA: And so you think that increasingly that’s problematic for LA?

CD: I do. If we’re serious about having transportation corridors and living in a more urbane way and a more dense way that is also humane and gives people the kinds of public facilities and open spaces that we want and we need, I think overlapping and multitasking between these uses is really important.

DnA: So do you think it’s becoming a given that there are limited resources and spaces for LA schools?

CD: No, but in the past the model has always been that the LAUSD schools had the power of eminent domain, and so they’ve always able to make campuses for themselves. What’s interesting is with independent schools and charter schools, they have to find sites where they can so they have to be creative about how to give kids open space. So there’s rooftop basketball courts and getting kids together to walk down the street a few blocks and use public parks. I also think instead of making that a problem, it can be a way of embedding our schools and our cities and making them neighborhood attributes.

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DnA: Do you think that some parents thought that it was perhaps a liability to have their kids crossing the street throughout the day to get to the gym or the library?

CD: There’s no question, it has to be managed very, very carefully. We have security and everybody’s wearing kind of a reflective vest so that everybody’s together and so that our teams are identifiable.  But the kids have learned something as well about living in the city, which I think is great. I think it’s a great part of their education.

For example, there is a public library, the nice old, Spanish-style Filipe de Neve branch across the street, that was recently completely rehabilitated and renovated. And, there is a librarian there who was very accommodating about us bringing our kids over there. It was sitting fairly empty during school day most of the time before. People tend to go to public libraries in the evening after work or after school, and so I think it’s a great thing to be able to use that public resource.

DnA: Were there any state regulations, state or city regulations to abide by?

CD: Oh, there were a lot. It’s hallway-width, fire-ratings etc. But once we realized we had to take the building down to the studs we just rebuilt it to those standards.

There were also other standards that we were concerned about in terms of lightning and acoustics. The level of acoustics that you want in an educational campus are very different than in a normal office building. It is a lot more sensitive. I mean the level at which it has to perform is a more crucial part of how the building works. I think if you are just in an office and you can’t stand listening to the person next to you just put on the headphones, right?

DnA: Do you think that there is something inherent in mid-century architecture that lends itself to school design?

CD: Oh, absolutely. The attitude toward the space being more open and more flexible and open to being reconfigured was part of the essence of mid-century. But as design got more formal in the 1980s and ’90s, things became more fixed.

The insurance company came in and used it how they were going use it, but they didn’t take advantage of everything it had to offer. We found a ton of available space in the floor that would have allowed for wiring to be placed anywhere. And there were a lot of floor outlets that could be picked up and moved to other places, with the idea of infinitely reconfigurable space, and I honestly don’t think the client, the insurance company, ever took advantage of that. But it didn’t stop Welton Becket from designing it for use that way, which I personally find very charming. And I think that we honored what he was trying to achieve. We got a lot of pleasure out of that.

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For other intriguing new school designs in Los Angeles, both public and charter, click here. For background on charter schools, click here.

All images by  ©DSH // architecture except LA Times clip.