When a group of Belmont High alums gather at a reunion this weekend, the sharing of high-school memories is likely to include recollections of the Belmont campanile. The tower of brick and stone soared about sixty-feet above the hilltop campus that serves students from Echo Park and other surrounding neighborhoods. Despite an imposing presence, the campanile was considered to weak to withstand a strong quake, leading to its demolition in the mid 1960s along with several other original school buildings clad in what was known as “Belmont Brick.” But that tower still serves as a school symbol and looms in the memory of alumni and residents. In fact, the school yearbook is still called Campanile and a color photo of the bell tower flashes from the home page of the Belmont website.
This weekend’s reunion includes some of last students to attend classes at Belmont when the tower still cast a shadow across the campus and it rituals. Tradition called for members of Belmont’s athletic and drill teams who were returning to campus to begin singing the alma mater upon sight of the campanile, said Colleen Miyano, who graduated in 1968 and now works on campus.
“I remember sneaking up there to see what I could see, and it was a beautiful sight,” Miyano said. “We had no alumni association back then to defend [against] the destruction. It wouldn’t happen today, for sure.”
The Belmont campanile was one of the many L.A. Unified landmarks that have been lost over the years out of concern for safety and as schools expanded and modernized. Many Eagle Rock residents recall the graceful Spanish-Colonial tower and buildings of Eagle Rock High School that were demolished in 1970. What replaced the old buildings at Belmont, Eagle Rock and other schools might have been safer but also appeared sterile to many alumni. Once demolition was underway at Belmont in 1967, many students and alumni picked through the ruins to salvage Belmont Brick, some of which was incorporated into a new “rotunda,” a circular, outd00r patio on the campus that shelters a floor embedded with time capsules.
The late L.A. Times columnist and Belmont alum Jack Smith salvaged the base of a column from the old school and planted it in his wife’s garden. Smith was no fan of the new Belmont buildings:
The beautiful Romanesque main building at the top above the terraced lawn is gone, replaced by a concrete cell block. The building was made of brick so warm and so distinctive that it was called Belmont brick. At one end stood a graceful bell tower; though gone now, it remains in memory as the school symbol.
In contrast, the iconic brick tower and classroom buildings at John Marshall High, which serves Silver Lake and Atwater Village, avoided demolition after Los Feliz residents formed a “Citizens to Save Marshall” campaign. In late 1980, the old Marshall High buildings reopened after being strengthened and renovated.
Back at Belmont, Miyano points out that several of the school’s original buildings, including the auditorium, remain. However, instead of being covered in Belmont Brick, they are skinned in a beige coat of stucco. Near the auditorium, a short flight of worn brick steps leads up from a plaza to a small landing. This all that remains of the Belmont campanile, which was guarded by towering wrought-iron gates (The Eastsider could not find an alum who recalled if bells ever tolled in the tower). Few of today’s students know about what stood at the site where two wings of original school building met. “I have to tell them,” Miyano said. “I have to remind them.”
The campanile is certainly a fond memory for those Belmont alumni who will gather this weekend. But would that tower and those old buildings have mattered to today’s students? “I think they would have appreciated something like it,” said principal Gary Yoshinobu, whose office is decorated with a large color photograph of the campanile and the buildings that were demolished. “There is a sense of craftsmanship and detailing. You don’t see that anymore.”