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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Only a few bricks and memories remain of the Belmont High campanile

Photo from Belmont High Alumni Assoc. website

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.

Photo from Belmont High website

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.”



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10 comments

  1. The school district, currently flush with construction cash, should rebuild the campanile in a modern seismically sound manner, while cladding it in a brick facade.

  2. The old tower was gone when I entered Belmont.

    Even when torn down its presence as you indicate was strong. That little school had spirit. Substitute teachers passed word that Belmont kids were good. Scholarships flowed in to be bestowed on the inner city kids who knew how to work hard. The kids were of all colors, middle class and working families, the sons and daughters of old Los Angeles families, the sons and daughters of immigrants, the kids from Chinatown, Dogtown, officially the William Mead proj across the tracks near the Ann St. animal shelter, Pico-Union, Rampart-Temple, Echo Park, Normandie-Hoover, J-Flats, the Virgil District. I had wonderful friends there. The center was a big white kid, quarterback Hawaiian. A tough Filipino kid was fullback, me and Ronnie Cole from Dogtown traded off at tailback. Yearbook said Many faces, Many races.

    I could spy the old Campanile as a kid from our hill near Commonwealth and Beverly. Those were the days when Belmont’s Campanile and City Hall were the two spires visible for miles and miles from Downtown. The Campanile gave me a sense of place and family history: I knew I’d be going there someday, I heard from older sibs of the teachers and coaches. I knew the cheers, the Fight Song, the Alma Mater. I already had the old Belmont spirit.

    Two famous Jacks went there, Jack Smith of the LA Times and Jack Webb of Dragnet. Satirist Mort Sahl, producer Mike Frankovich, actors Richard Crenna and Ricardo Montalban, Robert Lyles, NFL, Veronica Porsche married Muhammad Ali, songwriter Mike Stoller of Stoller and Leiber were big names. But the bulk of the student body went into what makes the country — lots of teachers and coaches came out of Belmont, firemen and doctors, judges, gardeners, service men and women, Marines, criminals, of course we had hardheads, photographers (the Watson family) and writers.

    Arthur Soo Hoo, Chinatown boy, became a LAPD cop. We ran track together, sprints, low hurdles. Art died with another officer in a horrific hit-and-run on a street where he grew up. Years later I auditioned to portray him in an episode of America’s Most Wanted and landed the part. To gather some vibe on Art I went down to Parker Center and met up with another Belmont grad, detective Frank Chan, also of Chinatown. Frank and I chatted there in a parking reserved for the detectives. “Art was always smililng,” Frank reminisced. Two miles from the old campus, a million away in mind and time. Frank retired and moved out of L.A. America’s Most Wanted has just been cancelled. Art is honored at the new PD hqtrs.

    Since 1923 when the school opened Sentinels served in every American conflict. Many gave their lives. On my first visit to D.C. I looked up my older sister Kerry’s classmate who was killed in action in Vietnam. I found Samuel Young on the Wall.

    For years Belmont’s name was heard only in ref to the fiasco of the money pit learning center. Those of us who went there, or worked there as teachers, coaches, support and administrators know the real Belmont High was a special place.

    The school motto remains Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve.

  3. Too bad they tore the campanile down!

  4. PAULA KONIGSBERG

    There has never been a high school like Belmont. I miss it.

  5. Judy (Hatley) Beebe

    This article really brings back memories. I grew up on Loma Dr., across the street from the old section of the school. As a kid, we used to play on the lawn in front of the old Campanile and had many impromptu neighborhood softball games there. By the time I got to Belmont, the new section with the rotunda was complete. No lawn. No trees. Just the common sterile school building.

  6. Long live the spirit on Belmont and its Campinelle and its motto of “enter to learn, go forth to serve” belmont’s spirit will always live in our hearts because only us understood, overcrowded hallways, long lunch lines, and tommy burgers, drill team, cross country, football… and all that made belmont!

  7. Wish I could be in Belmont High School again shot outs to all homies from 97 thru 01

  8. i wish at i can see bhs back in September 11, 1923

  9. Bob Benton summer59

    After doing some surfing on another subject somehow I ended up at this site about a year and a half after the last post. I was one of those now getting older to actually attend Belmont while the tower still stood. I joined my parents in that regard and the memories of those old beautiful buildings live on in my minds-eye. I guess be had the distinction as the class of summer 1959 in seeing the beginnings of what would eventually lead to the destruction of those buildings. For it was in that spring 1959 semester that work began on the East Wing and the auditorium to remove the old brick with its crumbling mortar and replace them with what you see today. Instead of graduating in the auditorium, we graduated on the football field, perhaps the first class to do so or at least the first in a long time.
    One thrill I would have given anything to do was climb to the top of the Campanile, but by this time it had been deemed unsafe and no one was allowed to go up. My father did have that privilege though as a graduate in summer 1929 when the buildings were only six years old.
    I’ve often wondered if the design drawings for the old buildings still exist in the archives of the Board of Education or the City Building Dept. What a treasure those would be for any history buff to view. But photos of vistas taken from up top or around the campus would also be treasures for us old enough to remember and for those too young to know what it was like. It’s too bad such a beautiful campus was turned into something akin to a factory.

  10. Coming up on 50th reunion it is amazing to think back to my years at Virgil and Belmont. I spent the 10th and 11th grade there and missed graduating with my friends. I was in the Army within a year of graduation. Made it back from VN but couldn’t find my way for many years. Went to several schools, LACC, ElA, Cal State, USC and finally found my way and got my degree from CSUN. The lessons learned there served me well and I preserved. Enter to learn, go forth to serve what a generation. I believe our class S’66 continues to be the biggest to graduate ever.

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