Video Observer: Original Fullerton College Buildings Recognized as Historic District

Recently, I learned from Fullerton Heritage President Ernie Kelsey that a portion of Fullerton College has now been designated as a historic district. It encompasses the core of the college, with multi-level buildings centered on a central green space known as the Quad.

It’s important to note that a historic district is a group of buildings that have a unique history together. Laid out and constructed using New Deal funding, this historic district was the most ambitious PWA/WPA building project in Fullerton’s history, and the only college constructed using federal relief funds in Orange County. I had a chance to take a historic tour of the campus with Ernie Kelsey, who explained in detail how the campus core stands as a legacy of New Deal programs and serves as an excellent example of collegiate resources made possible by public work projects.

The Fullerton College Historic District is made up of four buildings: the Commerce/Business Education Building (1936); the Administration and Social Science Building (1938); the Technical Trades Building (1938); and a U-shaped building constructed in three phases that contains the Locker Room (1939), Student Union (1940), and The Hive (1941), a student eatery and hang-out.

“The college was part of the high school for years,” said Kelsey. “So, in 1907, they created the College Department at the high school. This was something they did throughout the state because there was a law passed in 1907 that allowed high schools to set up colleges. Fullerton was the sixth city to do this after Fresno, Santa Barbara, Hollywood, Los Angeles, and Bakersfield.”

Carleton Winslow was the architect for the school district, and one of his assistants was a man named Harry K. Vaughn. To save money and provide hands-on experience, Vaughn used high school students to make wrought iron fixtures and terracotta and ceramic tiles in the high school’s technical trades classes. The beauty of it is that if you go to the high school, a lot of the wrought iron work is from the school foundry, and a lot of the work on the original community college buildings was made either at the high school or at the college’s technical trade building.

“The Depression hit, and the government started introducing programs. All of the historic buildings were funded using Depression-era relief funds first obtained from the Public Works Administration (PWA), then the Work Projects Administration (WPA),” said Kelsey. “Once the City realized that they had a college, they moved Vaughn from the high school, and he was appointed resident architect of Fullerton College. He hired college students to produce architectural elements for the new buildings. Initially, college students used the same high school facilities to produce wrought iron features employed in the new high school campus buildings.”

One of the first things workers did was grade the land. They built tunnels that were constructed to make it easier to get back and forth between the two parts of the school. Master landscape architect Ralph D. Cornell developed the formal college campus layout following Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia plan, with the historic core of the campus consisting of rectangular-shaped classrooms and administrative buildings arranged in an axial fashion around an inverse T-shaped central library. When designing the college, Vaughn wanted an architectural style different from the Spanish Colonial Revival high school, and he combined Spanish elements with Moorish features to create a Hispano Moresque style unique to Fullerton.

From 1911 until the Thirties, if you were a college student, you went to the high school. Back then, college students would have to share classroom spaces, the library, and study halls with high school students. The college student newspaper, the Weekly Torch, frequently published editorials calling for the end of “high schoolism” on the college campus. They were clamoring in the Thirties for a university, and they didn’t really get that until the Fifties.

“In the Thirties, the school starts applying for money from the government to build this campus,” explained Ernie. “So the City was kind of smart enough and saw what was coming and bought the property that the college is on now with surplus money. It was originally an orange and a walnut grove. So they laid out the campus based on Cornell’s plans, graded, planned out the tunnels, and opened with a groundbreaking of building 300, which is Commerce and Business Education. The campus buildings are named according to their use and identified by the college with three- or four-digit numbers. In March 1936, hundreds of students, teachers and administrators led by the Fullerton College Band left the old campus for the new one for the ground-breaking ceremony of this building.”

The college’s first building also had a working bank, the only institution of its kind in the U.S., run by students under the direction of the Board of Trustees. I learned that the bank distributed monthly checks to the 200 students enrolled in the National Youth Administration (NYA), a New Deal agency that focused on providing work and education for Americans between the ages of 16 and 25. Enrollment ranged between fifteen and twenty percent of the student body, with NYA students working as laboratory, shop, clerical, and library assistants. Others worked on the campus grounds and assisted in the construction of campus buildings.

Although students and instructors alike wanted the Science Building to be the next one constructed, the trustees selected the Administration and Social Science building instead, because they thought it would attract a large number of students to the new campus and would “better symbolize a separate and individual institution.”

It housed the administrative offices of the college on the main floor, with the second floor containing large classrooms and connecting hallways. More importantly, the first floor contained 2 large student-study and lounge rooms. Radios were added to the lounges in February 1939, and a terracotta paved area outside the lounges served as the first dance space on campus starting in March 1939.

The third campus building was the Technical Trade (600) building. Construction provided jobs for 206 skilled and unskilled laborers. Of the same size and general exterior appearance as the Commerce/Business Education Building, the Technical Trades Building contained a print shop, drafting room, welding room, a mill and cabinet workroom, an ornamental iron shop, and a machine shop.

The college students no longer wanted to share the library on the high school campus, so the second floor housed a temporary library. Some of the industrial and manual arts work done in the building was later moved to the Industrial Arts/Shop Building, completed three years later.

In July 1938, the PWA approved its last building on the Fullerton College campus, a U-shaped structure constructed in three phases, beginning with the Locker Room, and ending with the Student Union and the Hive. When grass lawns and seating were added to the Quad and Patio area in front of the Student Union in the 1940s, the use of these social areas increased.

A major architectural element of Fullerton College’s original buildings is the lavish and unique use of colorful Tunisian/Moorish ceramic tiles that decorate both the interior and exterior of the facilities, including domed cupolas, archways, doorways, and floors. The noteworthy tile, which dramatically contrasts with the buildings’ simple white textured walls, adds a decidedly Moorish style to the college structures.

The colorful tiles were produced by D. and M. Tile in Los Angeles, owned by Welshmen John Luther “Jack” Davies and John H. McDonald. The tiles, which have a watercolor appearance, were part of the Tunisian and Moorish lines produced by D. and M. Tile, and range in size from small mosaic tiles to 8-inch square tiles. Predominant colors are blue, green, mauve, yellow, orange, and tan. Collectively, the original Hispano Moresque buildings are united by architectural elements such as these polychromatic Tunisian/Moorish tiles.

“This place was becoming even more and more of a known institution,” said Kelsey. “So the school’s always been at the center of the community. When you think about the original township, which is Raymond to Richman, Commonwealth to Chapman, we’re kind of situated right in the center, and that’s what the Amerige Brothers wanted.

They wanted a college, and they wanted it to be in the middle of the city. At that point, the campus was about 437 acres; the Quad was about 7 acres, and that’s the historic district. But what really makes it unique is that these buildings were partially paid for by the federal government. So, we got PWA/WPA funds, and basically, the government paid for half of each building; the City bought the land. So what we’re standing on is really a testament to the New Deal and the ability of the government to help educational facilities.”

This Fullerton College Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 10, 2023. When Fullerton College opened in 1913, its student body was composed entirely of Fullerton and nearby town residents. Today, the college now serves students from around Orange County, California, and the United States, as well as a large contingent of international students.

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