Sunday, June 18, 2006



REMAINS, ARTIFACTS ON GRAND: Old cemetery's remnants lie under high school site

by Naush Boghossian, Staff Writer, LA Daily News

Friday, June 16, 2006 Overseeing construction of one of the nation's costliest schools, archaeologist Monica Strauss unearthed a treasure trove of the city's history beneath the LAUSD's former headquarters.

At the site of the $208 million performing arts high school at 450 N. Grand Ave., crews have found 140 artifacts, including the remains of 80 bodies, which they are going to extreme lengths to identify.

"Our historical research is so fruitful - the ample burial records, the historical maps," said Strauss, who's worked as an archaeologist for 10 years.

"Usually you get a lot of dead ends, but the history of the site is really coming together. It's the best feeling when you get a lot of information. It's like a mystery, like something out of `CSI.'

"Things are coming together and we're painting a picture of what life was like on the hill from the mid-1800s to now."

Once the highest point in Los Angeles, the site was known as Fort Moore, a lookout post during the Mexican-American War in 1847.

Probably due to its panoramic view of the city, people began using it as a place to bury their dead after the fort was vacated. In the 1860s, the booming city opened the hillside as its first cemetery.

The school district took over the land in 1887 and eventually used it to house the first building constructed as a high school - a structure converted to a junior high in the 1930s. In the mid-1900s, the Los Angeles Unified School District built its headquarters on the land.

When it came time to begin work on the performing arts high school, officials who examined historical records believed the cemetery had been relocated. But in December 2004 - a year after workers began excavating the site for the performing arts campus - historic artifacts were discovered.

Archaeologists have since found empty caskets, partial remains and the intact skeletons of those buried on the site more than 150 years earlier.

"We always knew there was the possibility we would encounter historical artifacts, but the records we had indicated the cemetery had been relocated," said Julia Hawkinson, project manager for Grand Avenue School. "We always had archaeologists on board, but we didn't know how much (would be found) or where."

California law requires that the district try to identify the remains - a nearly impossible task because of the lack of tombstones or identifiable jewelry or personal effects. DNA analysis won't work without a potential descendant against which to compare samples.

"The majority of our research is directed at who these people are and whether there are any descendants," Strauss said. "But it's very difficult to do. There are no headstones, but we hope to find jewelry, lockets, a decorative piece on the casket.

"We have nothing to go on."

The only hope is for archaeologists to use burial records, historical maps and identifiable markings on the caskets. Researchers are even tracking down old casket catalogs to help determine when they might have been purchased, Strauss said.

As bulldozers worked in the background Thursday, about 10 archaeologists used trowels and brushes to unearth the latest - and so far largest - cluster of grave sites.

One swept the dirt from a hexagonal-shape casket, revealing its wood as well as the bones of the feet of its occupant at the narrow end and a single vertebra toward the top.

When the remains were found, Strauss said, officials notified the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office and brought in a representative of the California Native American Heritage Commission to confirm that the site was not an American Indian burial ground.

They also got permits from the city to disinter the bodies. They're currently in a secured facility, but will eventually be transferred to Rosedale Cemetery, where the remains of others previously found at the Grand Avenue site are believed to be buried.

Strauss has been working with the project and construction managers to keep construction of Grand Avenue School on schedule, with completion set for 2008.

"It hasn't affected anything. We're sequencing around the hot spots and sensitive areas and we've kept the main concentration of work away from it," said Todd Whitehouse, general superintendent of the construction firm PCL Construction.

"I've worked on other sites where there's been an archaeologist, but they never found anything. It's very interesting to see it."

Already three years delayed, the 1,700-student high school has been beset with ballooning costs, which skyrocketed to four times their original estimate, making it one of the district's most expensive high schools.

Hailed as the answer to overcrowded schools in the area, the architecturally unique 238,000-square-foot school is designed with four small learning communities - for music, dance, performing arts and visual arts - along with a theater, free-standing library and a tower.

District officials were unable to produce a figure on the costs of excavation, analysis and removal of remains. That cost is part of the environmental costs anticipated in every project, said district spokeswoman Shannon Johnson-Haber.

LAUSD board member David Tokofsky was dismayed that he and other top officials had not been notified about the discoveries on the site, but said it appears that the LAUSD is being thoughtful and careful about preserving L.A.'s history.

"It would have been nice to know what was occurring by telling the school board and the public," Tokofsky said. "I think it will add to the special mystique that this arts school on Grand Avenue will have for the students who are lucky enough to be selected to attend there.

"There may be music in the auditorium, as well as voices in the corridors."


by Joel Rubin, Times Staff Writer

June 17, 2006 - Construction delays at four Los Angeles Unified School District campuses have forced officials to postpone opening the new schools by a month.

For the roughly 3,200 students scheduled to attend the informally named Panorama, Arleta and North Hollywood high schools — all in the San Fernando Valley — classes will begin Oct. 3 instead of early September.

To make up for the lost time, those schools will run on compressed schedules with shorter vacations. The two-week winter break will be cut to one week, and a five-day spring break will be shortened to two days, said Dan Isaacs, the district's chief operating officer.

At the fourth campus, Belmont Elementary in Koreatown, doors will open in mid-August instead of July 5, and plans to operate on a year-round, multitrack schedule have been scrapped for the first year.

Much of the construction is completed, but contractors have struggled to find enough skilled labor to keep pace on such work as electrical wiring, flooring and windows, said Jim Cowell, a facilities executive for the district.

"It's tough to go right from construction to kids without an adequate amount of time," Cowell said.

He added that such delays are not unprecedented. Last year, four schools opened late as well.

The new schools are part of an ambitious, $19-billion construction and repair project that aims to build about 150 schools and rehabilitate hundreds of others in the district, one of the nation's largest, most crowded school systems.

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