When the Paul R. Williams’ designed Marina del Rey Junior High School opened in 1960, this unincorporated seaside district near Los Angeles was described as a “peaceful, individual and relatively inexpensive place to live.” With one of the best public beaches in Southern California (Sunset, July 1997), an extensive network of bike paths and views of a large man-made boat harbor, Marina del Rey was a community connected to the water. Filled with floating boat/homes christened with names like Red Herring and Tangled Net, the district hosted a yearly Christmas Boat Parade and turtle race. Williams’ modern school design mixing indoor-outdoor campus space accurately reflected the Marina del Rey life-style of sun and open-air activity.
While preservation projects are frequently the work of urban planners, architectural historians and other vested community members, people who simply "fall in love" with a building can also be preservation champions. The story of the Marina del Rey Junior High School's renewal and rediscovery is an example of this passionate dedication by nonprofessionals.
By 1993 when the Marina del Rey School became a middle school, Paul R. Williams' connection to the building was largely forgotten by the staff, students and surrounding community. Gone were his original color palette and extensive landscaping. In their place successive administrations substituted the standard Los Angeles Unified School District colors (described as “faux collegiate”) and low maintenance plantings. In spite of these changes Williams’ design still had the power to wow.
A scheduled building update and upgrade (2008-2009) inspired a small cadre of teachers and the school’s principal to develop a plan to honor the architect who had designed it. They hoped to have their ambitious plans completed by the school’s 50th year celebration in 2010/2011. Working together they “spread the word about Paul R. Williams and his work to the school community—administration, teachers, students, parents, neighborhood councils, and other community organizations.” Aided by local professional designers, Teresa Reyes Gil and Janet Tholen, the teachers researched Williams’ life, design philosophy and possible color choices. They also consulted vintage school photographs before developing a plan to revive both the building and campus. Even with a state-wide budget crisis, school and district personnel worked together to make the teachers' plan a reality.
The teachers know their predominately Hispanic and African American student body has benefited from both the school’s aesthetic facelift and the incorporation of the many positive lessons from Williams’ life into the academic curriculum. They write that linking the famous Los Angeles architect to their school's history “undoubtedly lends a very positive sense of pride and self-esteem to us. We are a school with ambition to improve. The new color scheme is tangible evidence that we are making strides in that direction.”
Asked about their own impressions of Williams’ design, the teachers communicate feelings of awe and amazement “at how it changes with the light.” Architectural historian Mella Rothwell Harmon believes this architect's use of light as a reoccurring design element is one way Williams “left a bit of his spirit in so many of his buildings.”
Thanks to Nancy Hanover, Vivienne Ortega and Carola Dunham for their comments and insight on the Marina del Rey Middle School Project.