Sturges: The Man and the Monuments
THE MAN AND THE MONUMENTS
By Richard D. Thompson
It is quite a distinguishing event when a building is named in honor of a leader
David Brainard Sturges 1839-1910 of the community.
In the case of David Brainard Sturges, there were two buildings named for him a junior high school and an auditorium. Sturges Auditorium still stands today after eight decades, a monument to a man who was much admired and respected by his fellow citizens.
If a commercial building is known by a person's name, it is usually because it is named for the owner, who conceived the structure, and then paid someone to design and build it. However, in the case of school buildings, a committee is often appointed to nominate a name (the honoree is frequently an educator), and then the School District Board makes the final determination. Back in the mid-1920s, the Board made an outstanding decision when it designated Sturges as a recipient of the honor, first for the junior high structure, and then later for the adjacent auditorium.
David Sturges, a man beloved by his students, was a teacher or administrator his entire working life, 33 years of which he spent in this region. If one may judge a teacher by the achievements of his pupils, then Sturges is indeed deserving of a monument. Many of his students became prominent not only in the local community, but also statewide, such as California Governor Friend W. Richardson; Board of Supervisors/businessman John Andreson, Jr.; State Supreme Court Justice Jesse W. Curtis; Chief Deputy State Treasurer Frank Johnston, Jr.; Bank President A. L Drew; Dr. Harry Brunn of San Francisco; Civil Engineer Horace Hinckley of Redlands; prominent citrus grower William Cram of Highland; Principal Sylvia Waters of Eliot School; ranch owner Abbie Waterman (the Governor's daughter); Attorney John Satterwhite, plus a myriad of other pupils who attained professional and financial success.
Sturges was born in 1839 in Mosherville, Hillsdale County, Michigan. He received his early education in the nearby town of Albion, and then entered the University of Michigan, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees. He was recognized early for his teaching and administrative skills, and at a young age became the principal of Princeton Academy in Indiana, and then principal of public schools in Saginaw, Michigan. In 1862 he moved west from Saginaw to Virginia City, Montana, where he became the head of schools.
Sturges had married Ellen White Steele in 1860, two years before his move to Montana. Ellen was born about 1837 in Connecticut, according to census records. She graduated in 1857 from Wesleyan Seminary at Albion. During 1864-65 she served as a Civil War nurse in Indiana, and in 1866 she went to be with her husband in Virginia City, but the harsh winters finally took a toll on her health, and it was decided that she and David would move to California. While on their way they stopped at Salt Lake City and visited Westminster College, where Ellen was offered a position to teach history, a job which really appealed to her, but David had already accepted a situation in Southern California.
At Salt Lake City they joined a wagon train headed toward San Bernardino, and Ellen kept a diary of their trip between Salt Lake and St. George, Utah. She made observations about the towns and people she saw, and gave quite a description of the road itself in the Cedar City and Mountain Meadows area up to the summit and on down to St. George. She even discusses the Mormon practice of polygamy. Her diary was published in the Summer 1965 issue of the San Bernardino County Museum Association Quarterly.
The couple arrived in San Bernardino County in 1876. Sturges, now 37 years of age, came with a formidable resumé, but nonetheless he was required to take the teacher's examination, a difficult task in those days. Of the ten applicants, only David Sturges, George W. Beattie and James Roe passed, the latter of whom went on to a distinguished career in Riverside. Sturges took a $70-a-month teaching job in the Cahuilla Valley on the south slope of the San Jacinto Mountains. Eventually his abilities were recognized, and in 1882, following the death of San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools J. A. Rousseau, Sturges was appointed to fill the remainder of the term.
THE STURGES ACADEMY
At this time the education system ended at the eighth grade; there was no high school available. There had been private schools that had opened and closed, the oldest being the San Bernardino Collegiate School which was in operation only five years, from 1862 to 1867, under owner and instructor Captain J. C. Alsop. The Captain is mentioned in Luther Ingersoll's Century Annals of San Bernardino County, 1769 to 1904 (p. 403), in which it states that after nearly 40 years, people from the city remembered "the tall, dignified and somewhat austere man who first initiated them into the mysteries of arithmetic." Other private schools included Paine's Academy and Business Institute, opened by Professor C. R. Paine in 1873, and. St. Catherine's Academy, built in 1880 at the corner of Fifth and E Streets.
At the onset of the 1880s there was still a definite lack of educational facilities for those youngsters who had completed the eighth grade. Sturges determined to correct the deficiency in 1883 by offering private education to area students. He established the San Bernardino Academy and Business College, also widely known as the "Sturges Academy." The following story on the school - essentially an advertisement - appeared in the 1890 publication, An Illustrated History of Southern California, put out by Lewis Publishing Company:
THE SAN BERNARDINO ACADEMY AND BUSINESS COLLEGE --- This institution, which ranks among the first of its class in Southern California, was founded and opened by Professor David B. Sturges, its present proprietor and principal, in February 1883. Appreciating the demands for a higher grade of education than the public schools of this city then afforded, he established his school for the double purpose of giving advanced pupils the advantage of a thorough practical business education or an academic course which would prepare them to enter the freshman class in a university. With this end in view, Mr. Sturges has aimed at and maintained a high standard of scholarship by the thoroughness and scope of his methods of instruction. So complete is the academic course in the San Bernardino Academy that the graduates there from are admitted to the University of California without examination, which is the case with only one other private school in the State. The present building and equipment accommodate seventy-five pupils, and Professor Sturges has made provisions for enlarging to double that capacity. Connected with the school is a partial gymnasium, which is to be fitted up with complete apparatus in the near future. When Professor Sturges established this school his capital was so limited that he was obliged to go in debt for a large part of the purchase price of the lot. The success of his enterprise has been such that without any outside financial aid he has accumulated a property, in lot and building, on Fourth street near D street, worth from $10,000 to $12,000.
Professor David B. Sturges...came to California in 1876, and has been engaged in educational work in the southern part of the State ever since. The courses of study in his academy and business college are being enlarged and improved each successive year, and a higher and broader standard of excellence in scholastic results is attained. Associated with him as instructors is an able corps of teachers, one of the most efficient assistants being his cultured and accomplished wife, who is also a native of Michigan, and a graduate from Albion college. She has charge of the department of English composition, which, through her zealous labors, has been developed to a very complete system.
Sturges Academy 1883-1894
Professor Sturges, as he was called, offered three types of curricula: commercial, normal (teacher preparation), and literary studies. He directed the academic studies himself and offered education in "general culture and citizenship," or a college preparatory course. The business portion of the school was under the directorship of Professor E. C. Lockard.
The school, said the [1887 City and County] Directory, was "centrally located" on the north side of 4th Street east of D, "about 100 steps from the post office," which was then on the northwest corner of 4th and D. Classes were held in a "commodious" 2-story red brick building with shaded recreational grounds adjoining. What the Directory failed to mention was that the Central Fire Station adjoined the playground on the east, and there were, of course, horse-drawn engines there then. What fun! The academy was a day school patronized by students from San Bernardino, the Mission District, Lugonia, Highland, Colton, and other parts of the valley.
The academy's first graduating class was in 1886 and consisted of three boys and a girl, who are shown in the photograph below. The two students seated in the picture are Emery B. Tyler and Arabella "Belle" Anderson. Emery went on to study law and was listed in the 1898 City Directory as an attorney with rooms in the Burt block on Second Street. Belle married John Williams after graduation, and in 1892 San Bernardino County awarded her a grammar grade teacher certificate. She had scored the second highest grade out of 56 students taking the exam, another testament to Sturges' great preparatory work. Belle began teaching atRialto's Brooke School, which was founded by her stepfather Jerry Ousterhout.
Nobel Asa Richardson
teaching secondary-level students out of his home. Later he used a grammar school classroom to instruct his pupils. At first this was done without any legal authority, but at some point the Board of Education recognized the value of the program and agreed to fund it. Richardson, who always went by his initials, "N. A.," was another who later became a leader in the local public schools. He came to San Bernardino in 1882, and began a long career as a teacher and principal. He later was on the Valley College Board of Trustees. Like Sturges, his long and meritorious service was recognized by having a school named for him, which was the Richardson Junior High, located at Mill and K Streets.
Gerald A. Smith, in his book, A History of the County School Administration of San Bernardino County, California, quotes an interesting 1884 news story that describes a clash between Principal Richardson and one of his students, which shows that even back then there were some real problem children:
Mr. N. A. Richardson, the principal, was hearing a recitation from the last class for the day, when he was interrupted and much annoyed by a scratching noise on one of the desks. Turning around he observed Master Charles Waldrip twirling a knife on his desk. The boy was ordered to stop the noise and put up the knife, which he finally did after some little talk with the Principal. The latter walked to his place in front of his class, and while his back was yet turned heard the boy mutter something, the drift of which was not caught but it was more or less annoying to the Principal, who remarked that if he did not keep quiet he would be compelled to put young Waldrip out of the room. The boy said he would not be put out; whereupon Mr. Richardson started for him, with the evident intention of carrying his threat into execution. When in reaching distance of young Waldrip, the Principal was met with a blow from a pistol which the boy drew from his belt, and with the butt end opened quite a gash in Mr. Richardson's forehead. One or two more blows were dealt with the weapon, but without disastrous effect. The Principal overpowered the lad and wrenched the pistol from his hand, and thus the matter ended for the day.
The Sturges Academy was able to bring in sufficient students to maintain a profit in spite of the competition from Richardson, but in 1891 the voters of San Bernardino approved a bond for a public high school. Although Sturges enjoyed success with his academy, even he could not compete with an institution offering a tuition-free education, and he eventually was forced to shut down his school in 1894. The closing of the academy was a sad undertaking, and the Los Angeles Times covered the story in a June 29th article, entitled "Final Commencement Exercises of Sturges Academy":
Sturges, or San Bernardino Academy is no more. This educational institution, the alma mater of many of the best people of this city, held its final commencement exercises yesterday afternoon, when five more young people were given their diplomas. The lecture-room was crowded to the door with friends and interested people when the exercises began, and the productions of the young people show that there has been no falling off in the character of the work done during the past twelve years of Prof. Sturges's connection with the academy.
SAN BERNARDINO HIGH SCHOOL
The bond the voters had approved for the new high school in 1891 was for $60,000, but by the time construction was completed in1892 the cost was $75,000. San Bernardino High School, as it was named, was a three-story brick structure located at the southwest corner of Eighth and E Streets. The school was accredited by the state in 1893.
When Sturges closed his academy in 1894, he went to work for the high school, where he served in various capacities over the years. In his memoirs, School Superintendent George W. Beattie recalls the end of his first term in 1894 when thoughts about his reelection became prominent in his mind. He was concerned when he heard that Sturges might run against him: Professor Sturges had an academy of excellent standing, fretted Beattie; he had experience in the job, he had many friends and he was looking for an opening in the line of education. "Fortunately for me," Beattie states, "he was offered the principalship of San Bernardino High School, and he accepted it." Actually, Sturges joined the high school first as an instructor, and was principal from 1897 to 1900, not in 1894. The discrepancy in the two dates might be explained if the school had offered Sturges the principalship in 1894 with the understanding that he would get the position when it became available. Sturges again served as principal from 1901 to 1903, at which time he decided to give up the responsibilities of administrator so that he could concentrate on teaching, the work he really loved.
In one of his talks to the community, Sturges mentioned what he liked to call a "Pay Day," which was any day in his life that he learned of the success of one of his former students. He had many letters from pupils, now passed from his care, who wished him to know the place he held in their memories. Sturges spoke of one brilliant scholar (alas, unidentified), famed across the country, and moreover an athlete of repute, who had written to credit Sturges for his success. He had been a laggard, but was stirred to activity by one of the professor's addresses.
Sturges' inspirational speeches were one of the hallmarks of his career, but his final speech was the most dramatic: he fell to the floor dead while giving a farewell address to graduating seniors of the Class of 1910. The local newspapers were deferential to the revered educator, and the laudatory columns had headlines such as "Touching Scene at the High School," "Bids His Children Goodbye in High School Assembly" and "Beneficent Was Life Lived." The headline writer for the Los Angeles Times, however, was not so gracious; his banner read, "Drops Dead On Rostrum."
Sturges had been warned by physicians not to give the address. Evidently he became quite impassioned when delivering his speeches and in his later years his heart "did not perform its proper functions" for several days afterwards. He had entered the school year with the resolve not to put a strain on his heart, but when asked to give the farewell address, he could not resist.
The services for David Brainard Sturges were under the direction of Reverend Alvah Fessenden of the First Presbyterian Church. The funeral procession featured floral displays on the rigs and on Sturges' buggy, which was pulled by his old horse with the master's seat vacant. His students had made the floral designs that covered his horse and buggy. At the grave site in Mountain View Cemetery were myriads of flowers. The alumni sent a beautiful wreath of lavender centaureas. Each class of the high school sent pillows of flowers made of different floral combinations. It was a splendid funeral, with hundreds in attendance.
It is possible that a Joshua tree was transplanted to the Sturges home site in his memory. David and Ellen recently had moved to 998 North D Street, which was the southwest corner lot at Tenth and D Streets. In later years San Bernardino Sun columnists, in various articles, pondered over the unusual tree on the corner, a Yucca brevifolia, which is not native to the San Bernardino Valley. Newsman Earl Buie and others speculated that David Sturges might have planted it, but no one really knew, so it very well could have been transplanted in his memory.
David and Ellen Sturges had been members of the First Presbyterian Church for years. Ellen later commissioned a stained glass window for the church, and this superb artwork was saved when First Presbyterian moved to Nineteenth and D Streets in the 1950s. A special section was built just for the Sturges window, which is still there today.
STURGES JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL
By 1915, five years after Sturges' death, the high school no longer could accommodate the burgeoning number of students, and a new San Bernardino High School was constructed, with multiple buildings on the campus. The new school was located at Eighteenth and E Streets, which at the time was considered to be too far out in the country, but the School Board decided to build it there anyway. It was around this period that a new educational idea became popular, that of an intermediate school between the primary and secondary school --- a "junior high school," it was called --- which would consist of pupils in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades. These students would be introduced to the regimen of the high school by moving them to a different room for each class and by having different teachers for each subject. This new innovative program appealed to the San Bernardino school directors, and it was implemented without delay; as soon as the new high school opened in 1915, the old school became a junior high.
The public school buildings were not the only ones undergoing change. Shortly after World War I, in 1919, Professor Sturges' old academy building was demolished in order to make way for a structure to accommodate American Legion Post 14. The latter construction, in turn, was torn down and replaced by the Lonergan Building and parking lot. This building was long used for law offices and for a brokerage firm, but has been unoccupied for a number of years now.
In July of 1923 a sizable earthquake occurred along the North San Jacinto fault, which runs through San Bernardino. Cracks appeared in several of the unreinforced brick buildings in the city and surrounding areas. On July 27th it was reported that the junior high school was so damaged that the third floor was in a dangerous condition. The building was condemned, but there was some uncertainty as to whether the entire structure was unsafe, or just the third floor, where three of the four walls leaned outward. Structural engineers inspected the building, as did local architects Howard E. Jones and DeWitt Mitcham. The School Board had been in hopes that a portion of the building could be salvaged; that the third floor and tower could be removed, leaving the lower two floors for a renovation project. The final determination was that the entire building was unsafe.
In the meantime, children had been playing in and around the school, even climbing the fire escape directly under the most dangerous part of the building. The immediate area was quickly fenced off and a plea went out to parents to keep the children away from the school grounds. The president of the Board of Education announced that work had begun on putting a bond issue before the electorate in the fall for construction of a new building.
There was an immediate need for school facilities, and several proposals had been made to resolve the problem, according to the July 27, 1923, San Bernardino Sun:
Three or four possible solutions were outlined by Percy R. Davis, city superintendent of schools.
One of these would be to combine the F Street [School] and Technical [School] plants as a temporary Junior High School. The F Street pupils would be housed in the new Riley School at Base Line and G Streets, in the bungalows at the Junior High School grounds and others scattered in adjacent districts.
By Dec. 1 the new 14-room F Street building will be completed and all pupils can be taken care of without over-crowding, it is thought....
A third solution would be to erect temporary barracks to supplement the bungalows at the Junior High School grounds....
Contractor George Herz promised to rush completion of the new F Street School. Fortunately Herz was already ahead of schedule and his crew worked extra hard to finish the building.
Historian Arda Haenszel was a student when the earthquake struck, and she was one of those who attended classes at the temporary facilities set up for the displaced junior high students. In the September-October 1981 Odyssey, she describes how the classrooms were dispersed among different schools and buildings in the neighborhood:
Intermediate School classes that year had to be farmed out among other nearby buildings, and my first school experience in San Bernardino was one of travel. English and Math were taught in the Harding Building, which had just been completed. Social Studies classes were held in the two-story, cross-shaped F Street School. Cooking and music classes, offices and the auditorium were in the building just west of it on G Street. That was called the Technical School then, but it went by several other names before its demise. Gymnasium classes were held in the basement and on the tennis court of the old brick YMCA on 5th and F.
The city did not waste any time. A bond for $300,000 was approved by the voters, and a contract was given to the Howard E. Jones architectural firm to prepare plans for a replacement building. On January 3, 1924, the San Bernardino Sun ran an article describing the plans for a two-story building that would have 42 rooms. The building was to be an "L" shaped structure with one end fronting the west side of E Street, and the other end the south side of Eighth Street. The architects provided the Board with two optional exterior designs, one classical and the other Spanish or Mission. The 1915 high school at Eighteenth and E Streetshad been designed using the classical style of architecture, but the School Board later decided the overhanging lintels and facade of this structure were a hazard in earthquake country, and they tore out the objectionable features and rebuilt the roofs. It was probably with this in mind that the school directors opted for the Spanish design.
A cornerstone ceremony was held on October 4, 1924, under the auspices of three lodges of the Masons, although Sturges did not belong to that fraternity. Members of the lodges, the Shrine band and school children assembled in front of the Masonic Temple for a parade that led to the junior high building, which was not completed as yet. Approximately 1,000 people gathered for the impressive ceremonies. The Sun carried several stories about the event, and on October 5th a reporter quoted Rex B. Goodcell, one of the major speakers on the program, as saying:
I can wish nothing better for the students of this school than that they may be influenced by the spirit of Prof. Sturges. Thirty years ago, when I was a student in his classes, he taught me more of the vital lessons of life than any man since then. It is fitting that this splendid school building should stand as a permanent monument to his memory."
Masons Parade from Fourth Street Lodge to Sturges
The same article has some interesting information about the status of the old school building:
The new Sturges Junior High School, of steel and concrete construction and modern in every detail, adjoins the old red brick building in which Professor Surges taught for 17 years. The school will open about Dec. 1.
The old structure, which was erected in 1892, will soon be razed. A model school in its day, it has since been condemned. The site will later be utilized for an additional wing of the Sturges Junior High School, which will contain a large assembly hall and additional classrooms.
This shows that the original building is still standing nearly fifteen months after the earthquake. It must have been quite a sight with its upper walls slanting outwards. This does help explain the mystery of some old Historical and Pioneer Society photographs that are taken from a height above the crowds at the cornerstone ceremony. Whoever took the pictures must have done so from an upper floor of the old building.
The new school was officially opened on January 5, 1925. The building, which cost around $250,000, was described as magnificent, and it was one of many that San Bernardino architects Howard E. Jones and DeWitt Mitcham designed in the decade of the 1920s. Some of the other buildings to their credit are the Municipal Auditorium, the County Court House, the Harris, Andreson and Platt Buildings, as well as numerous schools.
Sturges Junior High School
The junior high was the latest word in school construction. A number of rooms had been specifically designed for certain subjects: two classrooms each for science studies, sewing, art, elementary and advanced cooking, and one large room with a platform for oral English. The building had an electric clock system throughout, and an automatic bell system wired for radio in each room. Lighting fixtures were installed in all rooms for night study, and there were specially designed window shades on the south and west elevations. Heating facilities included a unit system with gas radiators vented with electric fan suction in each room, and for fire protection there were numerous fire exits and stairways.
Ellen Sturges is not listed as being at any of the various events surrounding the opening of the school. In all likelihood she was too fragile to attend. When she died in March of 1930 at the age of 93, she was said to have been confined to the house for the most part since 1920, up until which time she had been active in church and club activities. However, even after ten years of being unable to attend social events, she still had numerous friends at the time of her death. Her close friend Mrs. Curtis Allen took care of the funeral arrangements. The service was marked by large floral displays sent in by friends and former students, many of whom had kept in touch with her over the decades. All six of her pallbearers were former pupils, and all were prominent men in the community.
In 1927, two years after the junior high opened, the old red brick school building was razed and replaced by Sturges Auditorium, which was another glowing monument to David Sturges, and probably to his wife Ellen.
The new junior high (in background) was L-shaped, allowing it to wrap around the old condemned
school building, which was eventually razed and replaced by Sturges Auditorium, shown in foreground
For reasons unknown, the Sturges Junior High architects, Howard Jones and DeWitt Mitcham, were not contracted to design the building. The school district used Jones' firm fairly exclusively before and after this project, so he just may have been too busy in 1927. Instead, the architects chosen to design the auditorium were from the Los Angeles firm of Witmar & Watson.
The fact that the architects were not in the city became a problem when a heavy rainstorm damaged the interior of the auditorium. If they had been a local firm, they could have kept a closer eye on their project. The architects stated that "someone used poor judgment" in "closing the openings" of the new building, resulting in condensation that marred interior tinted walls. And further, they said, an acid stain for the concrete floor could not be applied until all the moisture evaporated, or was absorbed by sawdust spread for the purpose. This setback, plus the fact that the building had not progressed as fast as some thought it should, generated some grumbling from the school faculty. There was some concern that the formal opening, scheduled for late April, would have to be delayed. The dedication ceremony was to be the featured event of Better Schools Week, a nation-wide program, so it is understandable why the members of the faculty were worried about the building's completion date.
As it turned out, the auditorium was finished in time for its official opening on April 26th. This was a big occasion. It was open to members of the public, who were invited to inspect the campus, and hundreds of people attended. The San Bernardino Suncovered the event, and reported that the entertainment included music by the Sturges orchestra and songs by the Sturges Girls Glee Club. There was a Southern California wildflower show, and the students provided special exhibits on "penmanship, art, Beehive [the Sturges school paper], cooking, science, math, sewing, and many other displays to attract attention."
According to the newspaper, there were several speakers. Rev. Thomas R. Grice of Pasadena, a Grand Chaplain of the Masons, delivered the dedicatory address for the new "$100,000 auditorium of Sturges junior high school." John Brown, Jr., Secretary of the San Bernardino [Historical &] Pioneer Society, also gave a speech. Brown had been the Superintendent of Schools in the 1870s and had lived in the San Bernardino area almost continuously since 1852. He spoke about the history of the schools, going clear back to the three teachers who lived in Fort San Bernardino. During his talk he mentioned the new courthouse that was located on the grounds of the bygone fort, and the fact that it was to be dedicated the following Saturday. The courthouse and other projects may have been the reason architect Jones was too busy to do the auditorium. He also worked on the HarrisBuilding, the Andreson Building and San Bernardino Valley College in 1927.
The Los Angeles architects reflected somewhat the design of the junior high school, and the city fathers were quite pleased with another "magnificent" structure in town. One little glitch was that the name "Sturges" was misspelled on the lintel stone over the entrance to the auditorium, but the architects promised to fix that right away.
STURGES JUNIOR HIGH CLOSES
The newspapers of the day presented an idyllic view of the new educational facility - a distinct contrast to a few decades later, say the 1950s and 60s, when the school had a reputation for racial strife. However, it was not an Eden even in the early days, if Fred Holladay can be believed. Holladay, who was the librarian and editor for the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society, wrote a column in the May 1980 issue of the Odyssey that shows there were problems as far back as the early 1930s:
It was laughingly called "Sturges Penitentiary" when I attended from 1931-33. But looking back, one can see why it was so dubbed, for its two-story class rooms rather resembled cell-blocks, while the large rear playground was encircled by a 6-foot high chain-link fence whose gates were padlocked from the start of morning classes until the final buzzer sounded in the afternoon.
Many times we fought our way into school or out of it. My first black eye came as the result of an altercation inside its hallowed walls and although I was never a fighter, either then or now, one had to put up his dukes now or then or be ridiculed out of school.
Holladay has plenty of company in describing Sturges as a tough environment. Louise Van Metre, Dean of Girls from 1928 until 1954, even wrote a book about it, entitled "The Purple Giraffes," which was Van Metre's name for kids who stood out from the others; kids labeled as juvenile delinquents. The subtitle is "Sympathetic True Stories of Teen-Age Problem-Posing Children." She states that these kids "get under their teachers' feet and in their hair; they breathe down their necks and in their faces. One minute, their teachers feel like killing them; the next, they are binding up their wounds." The book is 130 pages of some pretty spicy stories.
In 1947 the School District Board commissioned a study entitled "Long Range Building Program, San Bernardino City Schools." The text shows that the long knives were already out for Sturges Junior High when the school was only 22 years old.
The consultant reported that the "site is too small for an adequate junior high school program. On the other hand the capacity of the buildings is too great." So apparently the Sturges campus was too small, and the structures were too big; the ideal size of a student body was about half of what the buildings were capable of handling. He also concluded that the location was a problem: it was in the center of a noisy business district and was on a principal business street.
All of these reasons have the appearance of being excuses for eliminating the school. The consultant did allow that this was going to take some long-range planning, even if funding were not a problem (although it was), but the agenda to close the junior high definitely was established. The Board had a list of schools that were on the chopping block, and some were axed faster than others. It the case of Sturges, it took 21 years before it was closed down in 1968. During the cornerstone ceremony in 1924, one of the speakers predicted that the edifice would last for 40 years. It turned out to be a pretty good prediction.
The school district used the buildings for administrative offices for a period, but later they built new facilities adjacent to the west. Then, in 1978, the district was finally through with Sturges, and they offered to sell the auditorium to the city for one dollar, if the city would demolish the old school building and remove the debris. The estimated cost for the job was $100,000, an indication of how well the Howard Jones structure was built.
THE FATE OF STURGES AUDITORIUM
The city politicians did not immediately agree to buy the building, and spent a lot of time arguing the issue. In fact, they wrangled for three years before the decision was finally made. During this time there was a deluge of newspaper articles, enough to fill a small scrapbook, concerning the future of Sturges Auditorium.
In September of 1981 the City Council made many decisions concerning several downtown buildings, due to an arrangement with the county to erect its proposed "superblock" complex in the heart of the city. The buildings in that area had to be abandoned. This is when the members of the council seriously started considering the feasibility of purchasing Sturges Auditorium. One problem they had with acquiring Sturges was the proximity of Municipal Auditorium; the auditoriums were just too close together. However, they were under pressure to evacuate the library at Fourth and Arrowhead by January 1984, so the city decided to accept the school district's offer for Sturges, and then demolish Municipal Auditorium, on which site they would build a new library.
The renovation of Sturges Auditorium began in 1982, and even though there was a restoration ceremony in April of 1983, work was still being done over the next several years. The building was 55 years old, and had been out of use and sadly neglected for some time. The first priority was to fix the roof and make the building structurally sound so that it met modern earthquake standards. A new sprinkling system was brought in to meet fire safety requirements, plus there was the usual plastering, painting, reupholstering of seats, and all the other work necessary to restore such an old building. Decorative stones from the school building had been salvaged, which were remounted by the Brick Layers and Allied Craftsmen Union, thereby keeping a remnant of the Howard Jones building in use. The ultimate cost ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars, and would have been much higher if not for the generous donation of time and materials by various businesses, contractors and union volunteers.
Thelma Press, who dedicated many hours to the rescue of historical structures, was at the head of the movement to save Sturges Auditorium. At this same time she was working on the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society's Heritage House. Somehow she brought off the two projects. She had staunch allies, for both undertakings, in Penny Holcomb and Penny's husband Mayor Bob Holcomb. Retired Fire Chief Ray Shaw, father of current Historical Society President Steve Shaw, was also active in raising money and providing oversight of the program to save the auditorium.
In June of 1985 Thelma announced that a great deal of work had been done since the first of the year. The tidy sum of $200,000 had already been raised, enough to finish the basic renovation, but the total costs were estimated at $300,000. She said many foundations would not give money to restore a government-owned building. The solution, or so some thought, was to create a foundation to take over the building, one made up of various cultural organizations, with the San Bernardino Art Association prominent among them. The Sturges Center For The Fine Arts Foundation was then formed, and the building was acquired from the Parks and Recreation Department.
The foundation operated the center for 20 years, providing a venue for many cultural events in the city. However, the organization was always having financial troubles, barely able to keep itself afloat. The condition of the building slipped to the point where, in late 2006, it was estimated that another $100,000 was needed for renovations.
Our former Mayor, Pat Morris, planed to keep the center going. He assigned the project to his chief of staff, who stated, "Rest assured we don't intend to have this thing close its doors. There are 150 bookings for next year. We won't walk away from that." He began working with the foundation to find a solution. "We've met with some board members," he said. "We've been working behind the scenes to partner with these folks, possibly revamping the way the auditorium is run." He felt that the model used to run the Sturges Center left heavy responsibility on the shoulders of an independent foundation. In March of 2007 it was announced that a new partnership had been formed, consisting of the city, the school district and Cal State San Bernardino, in order to save the troubled Sturges Center.
Many local citizens over the years have donated their time, money or expertise in trying to preserve Sturges Auditorium, when it simply might have been easier to abandon the structure. We owe a debt of gratitude to these people, who understand that the auditorium is a part of San Bernardino's architectural heritage. There is some hope, with the city determined to keep the Sturges Center open, that this monument to a great educator will continue to provide cultural programs for the community.