LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
In Los Angeles, a big, new and very expensive public school campus is finally finished and ready for classes. It's named for the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and it is built on the spot where he was fatally shot in 1968. Back then a hotel stood on that site. As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, it was a place that was famous long before it became infamous.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The long driveway in front of what's now the Robert F. Kennedy Community School is about to be filled with students rushing to classes. But turn back the clock 60 years or so, and this same space is packed with limousines dropping off elegantly dressed passengers bound for a legendary L.A. nightclub.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSREEL)
U: Gus Arnheim, transplanter(ph) to the world-famous Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel Los Angeles.
U: Singer Johnny Mathis drew a star-studded opening night crowd at the Ambassador's Cocoanut Grove.
U: The Cocoanut Grove takes great pleasure in presenting Sammy Davis Jr.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRIGSBY BATES: That was Ambassador Hotel. It quickly became the place to see and be seen. The hotel hosted the Academy Awards for several years. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nikita Khrushchev were guests. Richard Nixon wrote his Checkers speech here.
Then, in 1968, an event occurs that eclipsed everything else.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSCAST)
GRIGSBY BATES: My thanks to all of you. And now, it's on to Chicago and let's win there.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
GRIGSBY BATES: Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy gave his victory speech in the Embassy Ballroom after winning the California primary. Then...
U: The senator is on the ground. He's bleeding profusely, apparently - clear back - apparently the senator has been shot.
GRIGSBY BATES: Robert Kennedy died at a nearby hospital 26 hours after being shot in the hotel pantry. And with that, the Ambassador became another grim landmark for a country that had seen too many tragedies.
The hotel survived another 20 years but it became a prisoner of its own history; a boarded up relic from good times and bad with no clear future. That changed when the L.A. School District bought the property and said it would build six schools on the Ambassador's footprint. It meant the old hotel would be demolished. But project manager Steve Collins says parts of the Ambassador have been saved and recreated in today's school.
WERTHEIMER: As we were disassembling the project, we found the original artwork, colors, and the Moorish architecture, and so forth sandwiched between some newer construction. So we were able to recreate that from what was originally here.
GRIGSBY BATES: Preservationists weren't impressed.
WERTHEIMER: The attempts at linking this to the historic past of the site are really gimmicks.
GRIGSBY BATES: Linda Dishman is executive director of the L.A. Conservancy, which sued to try to preserve large parts of the hotel. She thinks the school building that exists today, with a few facsimiles of the Ambassador, is pointless.
WERTHEIMER: I really - in my whole experience in walking through that site was that it was a missed opportunity.
GRIGSBY BATES: Not so says Georgia Lazo, principal of a new K through 12-school in the complex.
WERTHEIMER: It's a great. I think a lot of us in LAUSD have been used to working in older buildings, sometimes dilapidated buildings, so this certainly something that our faculty deserves.
GRIGSBY BATES: Principal Lazo takes us into a big room filled with state of the art equipment that looks as if it belongs in CSI.
WERTHEIMER: This is one of our chemistry labs. We're really excited about it because many of our teachers, who were working in older facilities, don't actually have science labs.
GRIGSBY BATES: All that cost lots of money. The six schools cost more than a half billion dollars. Some blame that huge price tag on the long legal battle over whether to save the Ambassador or bulldoze it.
Georgia Lazo, for one, is unapologetic about what the schools cost.
WERTHEIMER: It's a great facility and our kids deserve it, our community deserves it.
GRIGSBY BATES: Former Kennedy aide Paul Schrade agrees. Schrade was with the senator when he was gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan in the Ambassador pantry. Schrade was also shot but he survived. And for almost 30 years, he's labored to have a school built on the Ambassador site that would be a proper memorial to his friend and mentor. Now he feels they finally have one.
WERTHEIMER: That was part of his legacy and that is to give poor kids a decent education, which would help break its cycle of poverty. And that's really what this schools are all about is giving kids a chance.
GRIGSBY BATES: Maria Gutierrez lives right down the street from the RFK School. She's 27, grew up in the neighborhood and has only known the Ambassador as an abandoned eyesore. When she heard a school was going to be built on the property, Mrs. Gutierrez made herself a vow.
WERTHEIMER: If one day I have kids, I'm going to have them come here and I am. I'm happy because that came through. My kids are going there, so...
U: Yeah, second grade.
GRIGSBY BATES: Her sons, Bulmaro and Juan, are enrolled in one of the elementary schools here and will remain at RFK through 12th grade.
Some who knew Bobby Kennedy say this is the kind of living legacy he'd appreciate.
Karen Grigby Bates, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.