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It's back-to-school time, so I thought I would share some recent research about an important Los Angeles institution that was responsible for turning out many of the draftsmen and architects that shaped Southern California: Los Angeles Polytechnic High School.

Polytechnic High School was this city’s double-down bet on the vocational education wave that was reshaping public education during the early 20th century. Meant to provide a practical alternative to Los Angeles High School, which was training students for college, Polytechnic provided the commercial and technical training students needed to be employable immediately upon graduation. The school was officially founded in 1904. A large new facility designed by Burnham & Bleisner was erected in 1905 to accommodate the numbers of students who wished to attend. An architecture program was established in 1906. By 1909, architecture was one of 17 curriculum tracks of study, alongside machine drafting, commercial (business), forging, and dressmaking.

The early curriculum followed that of the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects, which was quite popular throughout the US at that time. It included not only architectural drawing, but also architectural history, as well as a class on the strength of materials. In 1914, Los Angeles Polytechnic High School expanded available courses in architecture with a beginner’s three-day-per-week class on architectural design. By 1919, Polytechnic’s architecture curriculum was expanded with additional requirements in the final two years of study, which included classes in detailing, plan reading, rendering, specifications, architectural styles, and landscape architecture. Claude A. Faithfull, AIA (1875-1948), ran the program from 1906 to 1939, heading the department of architecture with two to three other instructors.

The emphasis on practical training was evident in the construction of students’ designs. The school district realized it could leverage this resource as well. Students designed three new educational facilities in 1908. According to the yearbook, thePolytechnic Student, by 1912, several student-designed structures were nearing completion, including an eight-room house for Vice Principal W.L. Richter at 1506 Crenshaw Boulevard, a six-room home for a Mrs. Riddle of Hollywood, and a five-room bungalow in Alhambra.

At a time when women were not regularly educated in the profession of architecture, but were steered into the domestic arts curriculum, Penelope Murdoch—along with fellow students Alfred S. Nibecker, Jr., Homer Tuttle, and Ervin Smith—designed a school at Vernon and Ascot Avenues (razed). Although Murdoch did not go on to become a practicing architect, around 1913, she joined the architecture department under Faithfull and taught for three years until she married and had a family.

By the mid-1920s, the architecture department of the school was sponsoring student competitions for small house designs in conjunction with the Los Angeles Architectural Club. The top four winners for 1928—selected from 160 entries—were all rendered in the period revival styles of the time.

Los Angeles Polytechnic High School turned out a number of graduates who would go on to successful architectural careers, many of whom were future graduates of the architecture program at the University of Southern California. Most notably, AIA Gold Medal recipient Paul R. Williams, FAIA (1894-1980), Walter Louis Reichardt, AIA (1908-1995), Rowland Crawford (1902-1973), and Richard Dorman, FAIA (1922-2010), were all graduates of Polytechnic High School.

Polytechnic continues to this day as Francis Polytechnic Senior High School in Sun Valley. The architecture department has since been replaced by computer science and other vocational curricula. Few know or remember the important early role played by Polytechnic High School in training the architects and draftsmen of the early 20th century.

Sian Winship

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