Being True to Someone Else’s School

I get a good, lingering look at the former Las Vegas High School several days a week. I ride my bicycle past the current Las Vegas Academy on my way back home from DTLV’s Emergency Arts office, and every single time I think, “I wish I had gone there.” Not because I wish I’d attended high school in Las Vegas (which I do, for myriad personal reasons), or because I would have actually enjoyed going to high school if I’d been enrolled at an arts-focused magnet school. I might even have shown up more than three days a week.

No, I wish I’d gone to school at LVA, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, because of the glorious building it occupies—a structure that has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986. For one thing, it actually looks like a high school.

This handsome building, designed by the father-and-son team of George A. Ferris and Lehman A. Ferris and opened in 1931, has a façade seemingly built for the cinema; it’s easy to imagine a young Kurt Russell sitting on its steps, or a twenty-something John Travolta defiling it with song and dance. With its towering Art Deco face and its ornately carved stucco friezes—in its time the only building of its kind in town, and the only high school in the Valley until Basic opened in 1942—LVA, quite fittingly for a performing-arts school, actually looks the part.

I wish I could explain it to you better without dipping into sentiment, but that’s what high school is, and that’s what LVA inspires simply by looking the way that it does. It fills you with school spirit that’s not even your own; you can almost see the decades of collected awkwardness and aspiration clinging to the exterior walls, like a kind of teen angst-ridden patina. By comparison, the sight of my own alma mater—Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, California, built in 1977—with its blandly inoffensive, pedestrian scale façade, makes me feel nothing at all. Go, Cougars. Huzzah.

That’s really what makes a building, isn’t it? The good ones make you feel something beyond feeling sheltered. They add staccato visual music to a flat streetscape. As much as I hate to say it, Downtown Las Vegas is not a pretty place; any innate charm it might once have possessed has been boiled out by years of unimaginative design, shortsighted planning and flat-out neglect. The Mob Museum (once the post office), the Historic Fifth Street School and Las Vegas High School are pretty much the only proof we still have that Downtown Vegas was once a tree-lined, charming place.

So I didn’t go to Las Vegas Academy. I suppose I can live with that. But I can still feel the pride of the place by taking it for what it is to Downtown Vegas: an elegant reminder of the town we once wanted to build here. I’ll continue to ride my bicycle by every week, imagining that I once locked it up outside and climbed those steps.