Eichler Tract a Class Act - Page 2

Twenty enthusiastic high schoolers team up with the Los Angeles Conservancy to keep alive suburbia's modern architectural heritage

"The involvement of students from Kennedy High School has certainly made the process unique," said Katie Horak of ARG. "We almost always work with volunteers on historic resource surveys because they're labor intensive and it's important that the community be involved in the process. Working with these students has been a delight, not only because they've provided us with an excellent work product, but also because their enthusiasm and wonder has brought new vitality to our work in the area."

Many people's love of modern architecture involves some degree of nostalgia. The Student Advocates, born in the 1990s, are forging their own fresh appreciation for these homes based solely on their distinctive and timeless design.

la conservancy high schoolers inside home

"When I first saw the Eichler homes, I was amazed by their style and the way they looked," said Irene Guzman-Garcia, a senior, who surveyed two homes with the same flat roofline style. "One of the homes was in original condition as built. The other was modified with glass block in place of the original sash windows, the original address numbers were removed, and the sliding garage doors were replaced with a modern, roll-up style. I preferred the original home."

Remarkably, even though Kennedy High is only three miles south from Balboa Highlands, none of the students had ever seen the neighborhood in person before the first field session. This sense of collective discovery made the project all the more enjoyable, as the students saw for themselves an important part of the Valley's rich architectural history, just a short drive from where many of them grew up.

"I appreciate the architecture of the San Fernando Valley because it gives me an opportunity to see and learn about amazing buildings and their history -- without having to travel too far from home," said Guzman-Garcia. "Having the chance to learn more about the history of architecture in my own neighborhood makes me feel a sense of pride."

The Student Advocates Program is the newest component of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Youth Outreach Initiative. In addition to helping with the Balboa Highlands survey, Student Advocates explore historic buildings and districts, conduct research and file field reports, assist with Conservancy tours, and investigate central concepts of preservation policy -- empowering the students to become advocates for their local heritage and built environment.

"We are very excited to be in the early stages of what we believe will be a long and successful partnership with Kennedy High," pointed out Linda Dishman, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. "By giving local youth a stake in the future of their historic city, we hope to cultivate a preservation ethic in the next generation of Angelenos."

It helps that these aren't just any ordinary high school students, but rather architectural design students. In their daily architecture class back at school, the students are responsible for conceptualizing all sorts of buildings, from small-scale mock-ups of surf shacks and doghouses to larger design projects, such as a theme park attraction or a Palm Springs modern home.

The Conservancy Student Advocates Program introduces an alternative aspect to the students' design education -- the idea that while there are many opportunities for trained architects to create new buildings, there are also creative and fulfilling careers in the field of historic preservation and in the restoration and rehabilitation of existing buildings.

Of course, participation in the program doesn't go unrewarded: the students earn valuable 'Service Learning' credits required for graduation. "The Student Advocates learn how to observe their surroundings, research the subject matter, and report on their findings," said Aaron Kahlenberg, the students' architecture instructor and the program's staff sponsor.

As for the students -- many of whom plan to continue studying architecture in college -- seeing the Eichlers up close isn't just of historic interest. It's also validation that one day, these students might have the opportunity to design something as beautiful and long-lasting as one of these homes.

With the Balboa Highlands survey completed, the students will continue their preservation work in the spring by working in groups to research and nominate individual buildings throughout the San Fernando Valley for landmark designation. Ultimately, the Student Advocates will graduate Kennedy High with a basic set of preservation skills and a working knowledge of local history that many people don't develop until well into adulthood.

"I always tell my students that they will take one class that will change them forever," said Kahlenberg. "I think the Student Advocates Program has had a permanent effect on a few of the students. Because of this opportunity, Irene [Guzman-Garcia] has decided to become an architectural historian. That alone makes this program worthwhile."

• Adam Rubin is the Los Angeles Conservancy's Youth Outreach Coordinator.

Photos: John Eng and Adriene Biondo

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