Historic L.A. Hotel Finds New Life As School Campus

Several elementary schools, high schools and K-12 schools make up the RFK campus.

hide captionSeveral elementary schools, high schools and K-12 schools make up the RFK campus.

Tim Street-Porter

For years, the once-swank Ambassador Hotel stood boarded up on Wilshire Boulevard. The lush lawns that surrounded the place were encircled by battered chain-link fences. The sign advertising the famed Cocoanut Grove night club was regularly defaced by graffiti. Some of the large public rooms had been damaged by water leaks, and security guards patrolled  the grounds turning away the curious and history-hungry. It was a sad end for a once-glamorous venue that had hosted everyone from Joan Crawford and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon.

Not all of the Ambassador memories were glamorous. The jury for Charles Manson's trial was bunked there. And most famously (or infamously), presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was mortally wounded when a young Palestinian immigrant, Sirhan Sirhan, shot him as Kennedy made his way through the kitchen the night he won the California primary. Kennedy died the next day, and some believe the assassination cast a pall over the hotel from then on.

The hotel had stood empty since 1989, used only by a series of movie and television crews.  Parts of Pretty Woman, The Fabulous Baker Boys and L.A. Story, among others, were filmed there.

'I Want Them To Go There'

Maria Gutierrez, 27, who grew up around the corner, says she would always wonder what was finally going to be done with the property.

"Then one day I saw a sign that says a school was going up, and I said to myself, 'If I ever have kids, I want them to go here,' " she remembers.

Now her two boys are students there. Shy Bulmaro is almost 7; his younger brother, Juan, has started kindergarten.

The RFK Community Schools complex is on Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of Los Angeles.

hide captionThe RFK Community Schools complex is on Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of Los Angeles.

Tim Street-Porter

What Gutierrez didn't imagine, back when she was single and childless and planning for her future children, was this: The old Ambassador grounds would contain not one school, but six. Finishing touches were put on the last school just in time for the new school year. Now, the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus is complete, and students from one of the poorest, most densely populated parts of California will have a gleaming high-tech marvel in which to learn.

Criticism

The campus' six schools have been the focus of considerable criticism. The price tag for the entire campus totals more than $500 million.  And in a state awash in waves of red ink, that has attracted a lot of notice.

There have been detailed descriptions of the professional-quality science labs, the giant swimming pool and the chic faculty dining room (on the site of the Ambassador's coffee shop, designed by the city's most prominent African-American architect, Paul R. Williams). Some critics have said, "They could have built a good school for a lot less."

Georgia Lazo, principal of one of the K-12 schools on campus, says, to paraphrase a famous cosmetics commercial, her students, her faculty, are worth it.

"It's a great facility and our kids deserve it, our community deserves it," she says.

Authenticity

Postcard of the Ambassador in 1936.

hide captionPostcard of the Ambassador in 1936.

Courtesy L.A. Conservancy Archives

Preservationists were aghast that one of the city's most beloved architectural icons was going to be bulldozed to make way for the schools.  The Los Angeles Conservancy tangled with any and all potential buyers and defeated most, including Donald Trump, who wanted to raze the building and erect the city's tallest skyscraper in its stead. But after several years, the conservancy board realized none of its several suggested alternatives would be accepted by the school board, and it backed off.

As a sort of concession, the demolished Cocoanut Grove was re-created as the auditorium for the middle and high schools, using the club's signature Moorish arches and replicating the color scheme and star-sprinkled ceiling that visitors to the Grove always looked for.

But authentic-like isn't authentic, says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy.

"You don't go to Disneyland to learn history," she points out, "and this is kind of like what Disneyland would be if they took a historic site and decided to interpret it."

Robert F. Kennedy's Legacy

Nonetheless, people like Paul Schrader say the new campus is exactly what Kennedy would have liked.

Schrader was a young aide to Kennedy and had been standing next to him when Sirhan Sirhan slipped around an ice machine in the pantry and fired his handgun. Schrader was seriously wounded but recovered and for years has worked to have the Ambassador site built as a school for some of the city's poorest children.

"Part of his legacy was to give poor kids a decent education, which would help break the cycle of poverty," Schrader, now handsome and silver-haired at 85, says. "That's really what these schools are all about: giving kids a chance."

This campus is made for those kids: children of mostly poor, mostly immigrant families, who will now have a chance at college and a middle-class life in the American mainstream. It is, many of Kennedy's admirers say, exactly the kind of memorial he would have chosen for himself — a living legacy.

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