There’s a wind of change a blowing down El Centro Street.
The intersection of El Centro and Fairview Avenue has been a hub of educational activity since the city built a wood school in 1885 on a one-acre location. The parking lot where many of us park on Farmers’ Market day was once a children’s playground.
The city graduated in 1928 to what Jane Apostol in her history of the city aptly described as an “arcaded brick building,” which remains a familiar presence. Classes continued there until 1979, when it became the administration building for the South Pasadena Unified School District.
Longtime residents may remember a bell tower which was removed in 1949 due to safety concerns.
The district said goodbye this week to the brick building where doors can be seen peering in and around the arcade which frame an open walkway. The original school bell decorated a tree-clustered front lawn.
The district marked a transition this week when it officially began operating one block down the street at 1100 El Centro St. — directly across Fairview Avenue. You can’t miss the new headquarters. The bell sits on the corner — looking back at its roots. The bell and the signage on the new headquarters building boldly announce: “Here is the future.”
“The new building is still in the center of town and that is fitting since it sometimes feels like the town revolves around the school district — with SPEF (South Pasadena Educational Foundation), PTA and Boosters,” said Ann Foster, a payroll technician for business services, who has worked for the district for eight years. “The community really supports the school district and vice versa.”
The area immediately across the street used to be an extension of the first school. That extension is long gone, giving us that wonderful park setting and what was once a Carnegie library and now the library’s community room.
But as beloved as it is to those of us who drive or walk by, the years have not been kind to the brick building’s interior. Employees and administrators have had to work in conditions or purposes that were never intended to serve. And for those people who say, “Well, just fix it up,” take a look at the budget and how most available funds have gone to modernize the schools that serve today’s students at all levels.
“Practically speaking, the inside of the old building is not ideal,” said Foster, a South Pasadena resident whose children attended the district’s schools. “The doors would suddenly pop open and sometimes the plumbing wouldn’t work. There wasn’t space in the hallway for two people to pass by each other.”
Irene Bugarin has worked for the district for 16 years and now is executive secretary in the SPUSD’s business office. She said she has experienced the problems that have become more than “quirks.”
“The building isn’t well insulated,” said Bugarin, who lives in Alhambra. “Bugs came in. Priorities didn’t make money readily available for fixing the building. The air conditioning could be difficult. You went from freezing in the winter to being hot in the summer.
“The bathrooms are still spaced for kids’ use,” she added “There are restrictive workspaces, creaking floors and windows that don’t open.”
Bugarin said that a storage area was referred by some employees as “the dungeon.”
“You walk into an area of cement. There are carcasses of animals — not just rats,” she said. “You have to wear masks because of the way the air smells.”
At a meeting earlier this month, a board of education member said that it would have cost the district $6 million to upgrade the existing structure. The district agreed in May to sell the property for $12.25 million to FSM SOPAS LLC, which plans to develop the property through Burbank-based Gangi Development. (Gangi was the developer behind the Mission Meridian Village project in 2006.)
“There is no way to make this building modern that would be cost-effective,” Foster said. “As nostalgic as the old building is, this new building will move the district forward to help us keep up with the future.”
Bugarin still remembers her first impressions of going to work in the historic building, and she admits to having qualms in the process of moving.
“It is a really beautiful brick building with the green trees and the old school bell in front,” she said. “It is so amazing to see what they did to transform the new building. Now that the bell has been moved, and with the signage, it has really transformed the corner. Seeing that bell was an important element to me.”
The bell is not the only thing that will be a salute to the past in the new administrative building. There will be historical photos placed to showcase student, school and district life from the 1800s to the present day.
Both women recalled the long journey to this point, with projects being proposed and either rejected or falling through along the way. Then, as the coronavirus cast a pall on the city, a way forward was found. Both women paid credit to the administration of Superintendent Geoff Yantz.
“Things just seemed to ebb and flow, but everything just seemed to align under the current administration,” Bugarin said.
Both women remember the way school was so quickly shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Bugarin, because of her job in payroll, was one of the few employees who went to work in the old building nearly every day.
“It was eerie suddenly walking into an empty building where so many people worked every day, but things came back and now we are in a new building,” she said.
The new home of the district’s administrative headquarters is now secure, but what is to become of the future for the historic brick building and the surrounding block? It’s hardly a secret that the city covets the two-acre lot as part of its Mission Street development — one entity that eventually backed out of its purchase had envisioned mixed-use housing and a boutique hotel there, along with restoring the existing building and adding a performance theater.
It remains unclear what Gangi has in store for the property. Representatives for the firm did not respond to the Review before press deadline this week.
The brick building became beloved — if internally bedraggled — over its years serving the city. Now, the city must wait to see how well the old gives way to whatever comes next.