Vista de Las Cruces project among architect’s favorites
Of the numerous projects Roger A. Phillips has worked on during his lengthy career as an architect, he has three favorites: West High School In Bakersfield, The Granada in Santa Barbara and Vista de Las Cruces School in Gaviota.
If pressed to select only one, he would choose the Gaviota school, which was completed in 1992 and is in the single-school Vista Del Mar Union School District. The Spanish-style structure, which cost $20 million, was built and paid for entirely by Chevron.
“Complicated it was — and then some. This school was more complicated than any one of the dozens of other school projects I’ve been involved with — some 10 times the size and cost — of this one. At the end, this project, this very special school, is the most professionally satisfying and the personal favorite project in my seven-decade career in architecture,” said Mr. Phillips, now retired, by phone from his home in Montecito.
He began by providing a brief historical context for the school, which has 51 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
“Well over a century ago, a one-room school was built at the crossroads at Las Cruces,” Mr. Phillips told the News-Press. “It was replaced decades later by Vista del Mar School on the Gaviota Coast and replaced six decades later by the present Vista de Las Cruces School at the original site. Then, as now, the very foundation of the school is at the Las Cruces crossroads.”
One of the reasons the school is so special is because of its site, according to Mr. Phillips.
“It is totally unique with its idyllic location between the mountains and ocean. It is the centerpiece of a beautiful pastoral setting. There is nothing to detract from the views. People driving south on 101 think it’s the Santa Barbara Mission.”
Why and how this third school happened will probably surprise those who shudder when they hear the words “off-shore oil drilling.”
“Chevron desperately needed to build a new off-shore processing facility to service their off-shore wells. The only possible site was across U.S. 101 to the north opposite their existing facility and pier to the south. But the Vista del Mar School was too near and in the way. With no alternative, Chevron said, ‘We will buy your school, find a new site to your liking and design and build you a new school. OK?’ And so it was. With this decision, the word was ‘Go and go fast,’ ” said Mr. Phillips, recalling how his firm was selected for the project.
“One morning, my receptionist rushed into my office to whisper that there were three people from Chevron in the office unannounced and with no appointment who wanted to talk about a new school. After being ushered in and introductions made, they asked to verify if we still designed schools. Assured that we did, they began a quick description of their project and asked if we were selected when could we get started. I answered, ‘Tomorrow.’
“Shortly, after 2 p.m., they called to say we had the job and set up our first project team meeting for 10 a.m. the next day. They had the motivation and the money. Hurry was more important than cost to them.”
Little did Chevron realize how many hurdles of bureaucracy they would have to jump.
“Public schools are generally built under the authority of the state with minimal involvement with local authorities. On this project, 11 agencies were involved — six state and five local,” Mr. Phillips explained. “The state and local requirements and standards seldom coincide. Compromise and resolution had to be reached on every conflicting issue.”
He chuckled as he recalled a presentation before the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission seeking approval of the site for the new school at Las Cruces.
“A couple of the board members questioned whether Las Cruces was a proper place for the school. At this point, an elderly woman stood up and stated emphatically that almost a century earlier, there was a school there that she and her sister had attended, and it was a perfect location for a school. Game over. The site was approved.”
Mr. Phillips said the school, which took four years to build, is designed to serve kindergarten through eighth grade students in small classes in unique, flexible, well-equipped, noninstitutional feeling classrooms. Each classroom has its own private patio/outdoor project area as well as direct access to a landscaped courtyard with lawn, seating and instructional aids.
The lower level classrooms, kindergarten and library are to the left of the main central entrance plaza and central multipurpose complex (music rooms, kitchens, etc.) while the upper level classes are located to the right of the entrance plaza, along with the administration building. This plaza is fronted by a grand staircase ascending from the parking and bus loading area below.
“The main entry to the multipurpose/auditorium building is intentionally reminiscent of that at the old Gaviota school. This plaza and its defining buildings provide a sense of friendly formality, casual comfort and well-being seldom experienced these days,” said Mr. Phillips, adding that a “second but important functional design objective is to facilitate the school’s future use as a community center when school is not in session.”