Some thoughts on the LA Times' Christopher Hawthorne's rather brutal drubbing of the recently completed Robert F. Kennedy Education Center (three schools encompassing K-12) on the former site of the Ambassador Hotel near downtown Los Angeles.

Hawthorne contends that the Los Angeles Unified School District has given the city the worst of both worlds. The new school complex tries to preserve some of the most historic aspects of the old hotel, which had been empty and closed for more than 15 years following the Northridge earthquake of 1994. After a bitter battle with preservationists, LAUSD's decision-which was handed on to its architects-was to preserve certain historic aspects of the hotel, while demolishing others. The constraints imposed by the preservation project, in turn, held back the new project from being something original and impressive, according to Hawthorne.

So, in Hawthorne's assessment, the new project is successful neither as preservation nor as a new, stand-alone project. I can see his point about preservation, but I think he is beating up the school complex (and by extension the district and its architects, Gonzalez Goodale Architects) needlessly to make his point.

Hawthorne's argument is strongest on the hodge-podge approach to preservation. In an analysis I wrote for CP&DR a few months ago, I praised the approach for preserving most important urban design aspect of the original hotel: The deep Wilshire Green front lawn of the hotel shored up the four-story fa-ade of the new high school, which closely follows the dimensions of the original hotel fa-ade. 

Inside, a coffee shop by Paul Williams has been turned into a teacher's lounge, while the original Cocoanut Grove nightclub has been restored to something close to its 1940s appearance. More importantly, the school provides hillside views and green spaces to students in a neighborhood with very little open space. This campus is a pleasant place to be for 4,200 school children who were formerly bused out of the neighborhood.

As a placeholder for the memory of the Ambassador Hotel, the RFK Education Center probably falls short. It's not really a preservation project, but a brand-new structure that, for better or worse, wants to make a gesture toward the past. If Hawthorne thinks that the gesture is half-hearted and unsuccessful, that's his privilege. If we examine the school outside of preservation issues, however, the RFK Education Center is a handsome, utilitarian group of buildings. Although not a masterpiece, it symbolizes the positive force of public investment in a poor neighborhood, and provides good-looking elevations on all four sides. 

True, the glamour is gone and another piece of LA history has largely vanished. That said, a living school campus is better than a dead hotel.


--Morris Newman

Editor's note: Correction appended.