Why this Claremont landmark remains a link to Southern California’s past, and how an outdated school became an updated shopping center.
Textbooks. Pencils. Desks. Classrooms. Teachers. Students.
Those are things one might expect to see upon entering the Old School House in Claremont during the first 60 or so years of its existence. It was, after all, the high school where all Claremont teens went for their education.
Today, however, a survey of the Old School House reveals something much different. Walking the halls of the aged building gives a sense of both old and new. Squeaking floorboards and a musty smell give a sense of familiarity. Walls are adorned with photos of sights from around the community during the early 20th century. Just as one begins to lose himself in the historic feel of the place, one of the merchants who now occupy the building steps out of his shop with a friendly greeting, snapping the visitor back to the present day.
Anyone familiar with the Old School House today knows it is home to a variety of local businesses. However, before its renovation in the early ‘80s, it was known simply as the city’s old school house.
“It was a nice school,” former student Caren Whiteside recalls. “It was a very nice environment.”
Whiteside attended Claremont High School during its last years at the Old School House. As part of the class of 1964, she remembers the transition between schools as they began work on the building that Claremont teens now attend. “When we were sophomores, it was just all contained here. When we were juniors, there were a few buildings that were completed—very few. We would actually go back and forth and utilize both campuses.”
Today, Whiteside is co-owner of Crimson Cottage, a small boutique that offers custom furniture and accessories for homes, and is one of many businesses inside the old building. She feels that the Old School House is the ideal location for her business. “I’ve always thought there is a lot of charm to this building. It’s a beautiful building.”
Crimson Cottage’s other co-owner, Michelle Owens, agrees that the Old School House is a good location. “I like it because it has that old-school charm,” Owens says. The uniqueness of the store’s setting helps their business retain an identity that is opposite that of big furniture store chains.
“We are something different,” Owens says. “We’re not one of those huge retailers where you can only purchase what’s on the floor. We do everything custom…we cater to their look.”
Another tenant at the Old School House feels similarly about the building: “I love the atmosphere here,” says Pat Echelberger, owner of Pat’s Alterations. Echelberger’s business has been located at the Old School House for 10 years. Aside from the building’s ambiance, she likes how the location makes it easier for potential customers to find her.
“It’s a landmark in Claremont,” Echelberger explains. “Everybody knows where the Old School House is. If somebody calls you and asks where the store is located, say Old School House and most people in Claremont know it.”
People’s experience with the Old School House and its many shops has helped one of the more popular businesses on the site today.
“[People] come looking for what it used to be and they find us,” says Judy Flores, one of the owners of Casa de Salsa, a Mexican restaurant in the center of the building.
When Flores purchased the business from the previous owners five years ago, she was not too thrilled with the location. “[When] we first came in it was very eerie,” Flores explains. “It was quiet, it was dark, it was not a very nice place to come to.” However, she and her husband Robert Flores worked to create the restaurant that it is today.
By garnishing the restaurant with plants and colorful decorations, the Floreses made their customers feel more at home. They also completely redid the menu and placed an emphasis on the freshness of the food. This attention to detail has been noticed by the community. “We [won] Business of the Year, and my husband got Businessman of the Year,” Flores says. “I think we’ve accomplished a lot in very little time.”
One of the restaurant’s biggest accomplishments was bringing in large groups of people for their Sunday Champagne Brunch. The buffet-style meal, which is accompanied by a live mariachi band, brings a group of people who otherwise would not have experienced the charms of the Old School House.
Flores believes that their location is what really sets them apart from competitors. “The building itself makes it different.” Their particular room is especially unique because it was originally the Claremont High School library. This resulted in a more open space with more impressive architecture.
Another popular business that has benefited from being in a section that was more than just a classroom is the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, located in what once was the school’s gym. “It was great having that big gym,” Whiteside says as she describes how the gymnasium was used for everything from a cafeteria to the location of donkey basketball games. “I always thought [it] was funny because you couldn’t walk in there with your shoes on, but you could have donkeys in there.”
Today, the old gym is used for much classier affairs. The theater presents Broadway musicals Thursdays through Sundays, and offers high-class cuisine. “What we decided to do was make the food just as exciting as the show is,” explains Michael Bollinger, general manager of the Candlelight Pavilion. “We have taken this fine-dining, tuxedo-waitered approach and stuck with it. We encourage people to wear sports coats and make a night of it.”
The Candlelight Pavilion has stuck with their approach to dinner theater for more than 20 years. They first opened their doors when the property was known as Griswold’s Old School House. The then owner, Sandy Sanderson, was responsible for converting the vacant property into a successful shopping center.
“In the ’80s, when we started, the property was just bustling,” Bollinger explains. “They were doing farmer’s markets on the property, the Old School House was full, so when bus tours showed up they had a place to go. They could go walking through the shops before the doors opened so they would intentionally get here early.”
In the mid-‘90s, Griswold’s Old School House, as well as Griswold’s Smorgasbord—a stand-alone restaurant located on the corner of the property—began to lose a lot of business. “Over the years, when [the Old School House] really started to fall apart, it was detrimental to us,” Bollinger says. “I wouldn’t want my customers to walk over there because all the wood planking was falling apart and the ground was uneven. We lost a lot of the allure of people making this a destination rather than just to come to see the show and leave.”
If a customer did happen to wander over to the main building of the property, they most likely would have stumbled across The Comic Bookie, a comic book store that was a popular spot from its opening in late 1990 to its relocation in 2003. The store, owned by longtime Claremont resident Chris Peterson, had a dedicated group of shoppers who would show up weekly to purchase new issues of the latest comics.
“I liked [being in the Old School House] and I find, since moving, that a lot of my customers miss…the ambience and all that,” Peterson says. He also admitted that he wondered whether his customers minded his store being located in an old building. “People would always mention the squeaky floors as they would walk up. But I’ve found…that most people were fond of the place.”
Peterson originally decided to open the store in the Old School House because of his fondness for the building. “I spent a lot of my adolescence hanging around [Griswold’s Old School House],” recalls Peterson. “That’s where I’d go buy presents for Mom and Dad’s birthdays.” When he decided to open his store, he had looked at a few places, but decided on the Old School House because of his personal connection to the building.
When Peterson relocated his store to a business park a mile down the road from the old building, part of his reasoning was because of the nature of the building. “The building was so old,” Peterson explains. “Particularly, the heating and air conditioning system…was quite frustrating. There was rarely a summer that would go by where we would have air conditioning for a good chunk of time.”
Peterson’s experience with the complex as a child also affected his opinion of the building by the time he left. “What frustrated me the whole time was that I had seen it in its glory days as a kid. I’ve always been hoping that somebody with both money and a vision would come in and be able to fix it up and bring it up to its old glory.”
Thankfully, someone with those exact plans bought the property in 2005. Harry Woo became the most recent owner of the Old School House, Candlelight Pavilion and the Double Tree Hotel. He decided to renovate the Old School House in an attempt to bring the building back to its prime of life. “The idea is to…reinstate the original flavor of the property,” explains Ying Lee, the current manager of the Old School House.
The renovation, which is currently taking place, is sure to be appreciated by the city. “It’s a special piece of property for the community,” Lee says. “I’m sure there is a sort of nostalgic feeling among the community.”
Renovation plans include adding elevators, building a parking structure, and making another stand-alone building which is to be a Trader Joe’s. Additionally, town homes will be built. “We are bringing residents into the area,” says Greg Gubman, senior planner for the renovation.
The renovation is expected to be a success in many aspects. It will bring in new businesses, new customers and, most importantly, revive one of Claremont’s most important landmarks. “The goal is to…revitalize the commercial component of the site,” Gubman says.
But, thriving businesses or not, the Old School House remains an important link to Southern California’s past.