by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For rural towns in 19th century America, as free public education rapidly spread, the school house, along with city hall, the court house, and the library, were the core public buildings that often reflected community pride through the architecture and construction of the structure.
Today’s “Getting Schooled” post looks at a real photo postcard from the Homestead collection of the school house in Compton in 1908. The building looks to be from about the 1880s and has a lot of the elements of what is often called the “Stick” style of architecture.
Clues to this include the thin wood elements projecting below the eaves at the front of the main roof and the thin posts and horizontal beams at the porch; the steeply pitched roof; the bell tower with its tall witches’ hat and ornamental posts; and the tall, thin windows, among others.
It’s really that “stickwork” in that projecting porch supports and above that at the attic eave that are the strongest indicators, though these are moderately used on what is a pretty symmetrical and otherwise plain public building. Note that there a few awnings, likely added later, to shade some of the classrooms from intense sunlight. The photo does appear to have been taken in the winter, given the leaf-less trees in the front yard at the left.
Still, the building was undoubtedly a great source of pride for a town surrounded by farms when it was completed. However, at the time the photo was taken and, perhaps the image was made for documentary reasons, the town was poised for a new school house.
In September 1908, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors allowed for the creation of $20,000 in bonds for the Compton School District and, two months later, the Los Angeles Times reported that, “as soon as a site has been selected, the Compton school district will call for competitive plans for a new school building.” It was observed that the $20,000 in bonds and monies received for the sale of the existing site were to be used for the new parcel “and the erection of the building.”
The following March, the Los Angeles Herald reported that architect F.S. Allen of Los Angeles prepared plans for a single-story school house measuring about 88×133 feet with the three-sided building built around an open court. Seven classrooms, the principal’s office and teachers’ rooms were included.
The origins of the town date to the 1865 purchase of acreage at the northern end of Rancho San Pedro, long owned by the Dominguez family. Amid the ravages of flood followed by drought during the first of half of that decade, it was decided to sell land to Fielding W. Gibson, who owned a farm and broom factory in El Monte, and F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of William and Nicolasa Workman.
In 1867, just as the regional economy was recovering and primed to enter the first sustained growth period in the history of the area, Temple and Gibson created a subdivision that was called both “Gibsonville” and “Centerville,” the latter referring to the area’s intermediate position between Los Angeles and the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington. In fact, the impending completion of the region’s first railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro, was important to the project as the line would pass through the community on its way to and from the principal places in its name.
By 1870, however, Griffith D. Compton, a native of Virginia who lived for a time in Iowa, and about 30 other settlers who came down from the Stockton area of central California became the primary residents and the town took its name from Compton. In 1888, the town incorporated, becoming the eighth municipality in the county. There are now 88.
Compton was a very different place 110 years ago in terms of its rural feel, but also its demographics. It was a community settled predominantly by Americans and Europeans and it would be decades before that would change.
Blacks, who primarily lived in the southern section of the downtown area of Los Angeles and then in South Los Angeles, were drawn to the rural feel and larger lots of Compton and moved there in large numbers after World War II, as race restrictions were determined by the U.S. Supreme Court to be unconstitutional.
In more recent decades, Latinos have become the ethnic majority in the city of about 95,000, comprising 57% of the population. Blacks now make up about 40% of Compton’s residents. As for the Compton Unified School District, it has twenty-four elementary schools, eight middle schools, three high schools, and five alternative schools serving 26,000 students in the city, as well as portions of Carson and Los Angeles. It has come a very long way and with enormous changes from the era of the single school house depicted in the photo!