The Last Look Inside Harbor’s Mysterious Hideaways
A Documentary of Newport Harbor High School from Inside the Bell Tower and Loats Theater.
Original Date Written: October 27, 2003
Revision 1: February 10, 2005
Revision 2: August 12, 2007
Revived: June 6, 2021
Revision 3: –Summer 2021–
Revision 4: –Fall 2021–
Why is this here?
From 2000-2004 I had the distinction of attending Newport Harbor High School. While I was there, I became an editor for the school’s yearbook, “The Galleon”. Since many changes to the school were beginning to develop, we based our book’s theme on these developments and set it as “A Time of Change”. The school has a Heritage Hall headed up by several alumni across many decades. Although to what I’m aware of, not much was recorded since the building shut down in 2003 and I wanted to assist with archiving these matters into my own hands, with the help of the yearbook of course. To what I am aware of, nobody had ever really documented a trip up the school’s bell tower and other mysterious areas complete with pictures and maps. This may be all we have. I dedicate this story to the entire alumni of Newport Harbor High School and all those that never had the chance to go inside the original tower. I encourage all readers to spread the word about this place. If anyone has anything they would like to contribute, please contact me.
History of Newport Harbor High School
For many decades people have roamed these famous halls since its doors opened in 1930. Of course, many changes and additions to the school came about as time moved on. As of the date of this story, August 9th, 2007, Newport Harbor had the oldest standing building in the entire Newport Mesa Unified School District. This was all about to change in 2003.
The original building on NHHS’s campus was called “Robins Hall”, named after Theodore Robins,. Adjacent to the building was the “Norman R. Loats Performing Arts Center”. I actually had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Loats once, a former Superintendent of the district. The theater also had a second person it was named after, “Mr. Robert B. Wentz”, an english and drama instructor from the earlier days. I was too young to meet him, however, one of my aunts said that he was a kind and carring young man. Sometimes the theater was pronounced as “The Robert Wentz Theater at the Norm Loats Performing Arts Center.” But many just refered to the place as “Loats Theater” as the building itself started to be called “Robins-Loats Hall”. Many high schools throughout the area, even elementary schools, used the theater for productions. I remember as a kid coming here and seeing Newport Harbor High School as a place that was so huge that I was afraid to go wander because I’d get lost. The last production I remember attending at Loats Theater was the “2003 Senior Show” with my girlfriend at the time. The rest is history now.
As time went on, several modifications to the building were developed including: more chemistry classrooms, an extension and mezzanine of the library, new offices, a music hall, a black box theater, and a clock installed on the tower. The theater was renovated a few times, the most recent being in 1989 when it was dedicated to Norm Loats. Still, the building had it’s heritage for so many years. The Heritage Hall was developed to archive the many achievements of the school.
The Day the News Broke
During my junior year was when the school got the notice that Robins Hall and Loats theater was going to shut down due to seismic conserns. I remember hearing first word of this from Sra. Turner, my spanish teacher. “Did you hear? When dooms-day comes we’re all gonna die!” Yeah, that’s news! OK? “And then the tower is going to fall on us!” Is this a joke? “No! The whole school is going to crumble!” OK, maybe not the whole school, but a very important part of it perhaps.
Major construction was going to begin with the Measure A funding the school district received. In 2001, the Newport Mesa Unified School District created the official Implementation Plan for all 30 sites in the district. Newport apparently counted as 3 different projects (the School itself, Loats Theater, and Davidson Field). The district had hired an architectural firm in Irvine (LPA, inc.) to carry out the plans for the school. Apparently, since Robins was the oldest building on the entire campus (and the district) that was built without steel framing, and with all of the additions over the years, the firm said that it’s going to fall in the event of a “code-magnitude” event. Even though the building never showed any signs of weakness and it withstood so many impacts and ground movement over the years, it scared the administration and the district. Many of the public questioned why it had to be shut down. Rumors say the building was made of concrete so thick that a car could crash into a wall and would never show any sign of collision. Why would an earthquake cause it to fall? Look at the leaning tower of Piza. Some teachers thought it was the safest building on campus. My solution, don’t get involved with politics and what’s practical!
All of the classrooms which occupied the building were transported over to “The Villiage”. Over the summer, a villiage of portable buildings were setup behind the pool. The school went 73 years without portables! Still, I hear they are only temporary. Let’s wait and see about that! Since the Measure A municipal bond was approved only to cover “modernization” and not the “reconstruction” of this situation, another bond measure in 2005 entitled “Measure F” was created for the “Robins/Loats Reconstruction Project” and a few other things around other school sites. It was said that the theater, bell tower, and the front half of the building would remain original facades of the new hall.
I remember helping pack up one of the science supply rooms during Mr. Schutz chemistry class. On June 9, 2003, the Drama department did their final production at the theater titled “Lights Out!”. After June 30th, all you would see is the lonely portrait of Robert Wentz through the windowed doors. When my senior year started on September 2, 2003, the office and administration were the only facilities still open in the building. They had little blockades and cones stating “No Student Entry Permitted” that were in your way of going around the hall. On, September 23rd, the administration officially moved over to the new portables and the building was now deserted.
I was at California State University in Long Beach attending a yearbook conference with most of my staff. Many schools around Southern California attend this annual event. Here was where our theme titled “A Time of Change” and our cover for the book was created with our publisher. Many people at Newport Harbor never get the chance to do something like going up into the bell tower or even some more mysterious places. As we were brainstorming ideas for the theme, I approached our yearbook adviser, Mrs. McKeon (but we call her Pon!), about the idea of closing the book up with a final farewell tribute to the tower. It sparked a lot of interest. But we had to carefully plan this as we were no longer able to ask the typical custodian or any theater technician if we could go in. The building was vacated and locked to any routine entry. I had to make up a good “selling” concept to be approved by the assistant principal in charge of facilities at the time, Dr. Robert Cunard, and the plant manager. We were successful. Brad Gray, who was the plant manager at the time was scheduled to escort me with my other editor, Brenna Duncan, on October 23rd. A lot of excitement was upon us as this was probably going to be the last time the average student was going to enter the building. OK, granted, the building has been plagued with a lot of break-ins and vandalism since then, but no one else was going to document this effort. The day came, I grabed the best camera the staff had, we were picked up, and the key unlocked the one and only door that wasn’t boarded up…
The Tour Begins
The first stop was right outside the back-door of the library. The office was completely empty, minus a few things still on the wall and the lights still on. Many things were still in boxes but not yet taken out. In parts of the office and around the halls of the building are several paintings painted right on the wall by students. It’s sad to see most of these get torn down. Only some of them are being preserved or replicated into the new building. The library was completely deserted of books. It’s a scary sight to see an empty library. The temporary library was relocated to an old oversized drafting room in Sims Hall. It fit in quite nicely minus it being a little crowded even with many books in storage. But the library didn’t have the same feeling though. Over on the other side of the building, lockers were being taken out and relocated to the Home Arts building. The closing of Robins Hall caused a shortage of lockers. Robins housed around 1,500 lockers, a little more than half of the school population at the time. Other than that, there wasn’t much else to see down here, so we headed up…
Empty Classrooms and Halls
On up we went to the chemistry and physics classrooms. The chemistry classrooms were added to the building in the 1970’s. These rooms looked a little different than the rest of the building because they were upgraded with an air control system and better lighting than the rest of the building. According to the plans for the new building, these rooms will not be replaced in order to honor the original design of the building. Brenna and I both had Mr. Matt Schutz for Chemistry, so we made his room the first stop. It looks like somebody had some fun on the last day of class in here because the floor was all wet from the emergency shower. I remember being told you wouldn’t want to use the shower even if you got burned because the water would be all grungy. Nonetheless, I guess this was a farewell joke. Another notable thing (as you can see in the picture) were molecule models that were left in the room. Mine was still hanging from the ceiling. I decided not to take it and let it die with the building. Schutz left a chemistry problem on the board for the rats that plagued the building to solve.
Right across from Schutz’s Chemistry room was Mr. John Risse’s physics class, who Brenna and I also had for physics. This one wasn’t as surprising but there were some catapults left in the room that I felt like stealing. Looking through the windows of the room was a view of the dead plants dying in the center courtyard of the complex. The entire courtyard was covered with fallen leaves. It was looking pretty bad.
Science Closet Jokes
Each of the rooms in Robins Hall had a closet used for storage in each department. Some teachers were more humorus than others. A famous story about new custodians comes first to my mind when talking about the closets of Robins Hall. Dead partially-digested sea animals were put into a bag and left in the closet for someone to notice. What was noticable when I went in was the strong stench of year-old soap projects. Have you ever smelt rotten soap? I guess everyone was too lazy to clean the closets out, so they left it alone to eventually let it sit and rot there for 3 years. I don’t even wan’t to know what it was like for the asbestos abatement crew to take that stuff out. Noted around the corner by the biology wing was Johnston’s aquarium that still had small creatures swimming in there living off of whatever was in the tank.
That One Door Upstairs
Almost all of the doors upstairs in Robins either went to a closet or a classroom. However, there were three doors, a set of 2 and 1 other door, in the west corner of Robins that went somewhere else. The double doors happen to lead to the upstairs lobby of Loats Theater. The other door, well, unless you were a theater techie, led to a place that many never went through or even knew where it went. No, we’re not quite there yet but Brad opened the door for us…
Through That One Door
From this point on begins the myseterious scenes, some said to be supernatural and even potentially dangerous. Like I’ve said many never go through that door for obvious reasons that you’re about to read and see. At first it doesn’t seem mysterious to only be bombarded by a set of stairs and a short hallway with two more doors. One states “Safty Film Only Permitted in this Room”. The other door is not labeled. After seeing that old group picture, this hallway was probably put together during the 1980’s remodel of the theater. I remember an article in the Beacon, the school’s newspaper, that went behind the scenes of Loats Theater. “Going up there will be a little like Fear Factor.” I still couldn’t see when the fun was going to start. The door with the sign was opened first. We were now in the control room all the way back inside the theater. The entire room was painted blue, I guess not to distract people in the audience. The room was diveded into two parts, sound and lighting. The sound board looked very new and clean while the light dimmer looked like trash. Between both areas was another blue door. Beyond it yet, was another set of stairs. How high is this place? We were apparently up against the roofline of the theater. Yes, that’s above the ceiling. At the end of the stairs was a very narrow walkway on a bridge. I could feel the vibrations of our feet just stepping onto it. Some sign at the top was posted on a door that stated “DANGER!” OK, now we’re in for it.
Go Walk the Plank
…well that’s what it felt like going down this narrow bridge without any supports underneith you. We apparently were looking for a light switch to give us some sort of light up here. Can anyone guess where we happened to be? I didn’t even know at first. All my times I’ve been to this theater I never know this place even existed. We were up in what was called the “catwalks” of the theater. Up here, there’s actually three ways out: going back the way you came in, or down one of two corridors that lead to another ladder to the spotlights, that is, if you can find your path without any lights! My guess is during productions, lights could not be used up here. All you had was a guiderail to find your way around and hopes that you wouldn’t trip because it’s a long way down to the ground. Only the experts could master this. Rumors have it that there was something else up there. Some ghost of a dead producer or something. I do have to say, all the pictures I took up here, only one came out OK. Can you explain that?
The Office Has a Big Secret
So, we made it back alive. There was one place we haven’t gone yet: that unmarked door. It was opened up, only to bring us to a nice quaint little office and what do you know, it’s also painted blue. What is so special about this place? Absolutely nothing, but there’s a clue. Next to a bunch of cabinets is a short stubby little door up three steps. What’s up with that? Next to the cabinets looked like some kind of old contraption with cables hanging out of it. What is this? did someone leave it on? No, it’s on for a purpose. Why? Watch where the cables go, through that short stubby blue door, and be sure to check the time before you go through so you’re not on the stoke of the hour…
Welcome to the Base
Actually, we were standing above the upstairs hallway of Robins. The actual base of the tower was a vestibule at the western entrance of the building that was located outside of the school’s office. I wonder how many students actually noticed that they were standing right under the tower as they ran off to class? Of course right above them two more floors was a completely different atmosphere: a musty room with one light, a rusty ladder, and grafiti covering the walls dating all the way back to the 1930’s of the “elite few”. A switch inside the office turned on the one light that gave you somewhat of assistance on the way up. At this point, Brad just stared at us with an expression of “well?” This was our cue. Brenna and I were going to be the last students up this ladder (OK, maybe not including the McCarthy demolition crew and the numerous break-ins that happened for the four years that the building was closed). Ladies first.
The Climb to the Clock
Now this actually reminded me of something like fear factor. I followed up the first ladder right behind Brenna to a room that only had an open hatch as a light source. If you were to ever go up here at night, your only source of light would be a flashlight or you’d be out of luck. Both of us stepped onto the platform that the mechanics of the clock sat on. It turns out that those cables from the office lead right up to here. A suprise screeching noise startled both of us. The machine that turned the hands on the clock sat on a tripod in the middle of the floor that cranked every 2 minutes. I liked calling it the “dingle-hopper minute-hand-mover”. This thing was so old that it sounded like it was running “loose” like a squeaky car or an old big-ben alarm clock with a broken bell. The clock that was on the south side of the tower was broken and had been stuck on 1:45 for some time. Up here was yet more grafiti. We still had more to climb. This time it wasn’t to a dark room. There was light; a clear notion that we were near what we were anticipating.
The Highest Elevation on Campus
…and it sure was, even in the surrounding neighborhoods of Newport Beach. Local jurisdiction back in the day had the tower serve as a purpose of navigation for boats in the Pacific Ocean. Of course, this was back when the school was surrounded by open fields. Irvine Avenue and 15th Street were dirt roads. I let Brenna climb up first again. At this point you could feel the wind from the top. The dingle-hopper did its thing again on the way up. Once I was at the hatch, I had no ladder to lift myself up the rest of the way. I had to pull myself up onto the platform. Once you make the long trip up, you can enjoy the scenery. There probably isn’t anything like it around the immediate area. Up inside the tower at the top was a frame that was built into the structure to install the bell that was stolen from mexico back in the 1950’s. Unfortunately, all this rope was tied to the bell which left the chime speakers dangling from it so we couldn’t ring it. It’s sad to see how poorly this place was taken care of. Instead of pondering why, we came up here for a reason, so we got started taking pictures. We were up there for about 10 minutes. Right before our way down, I had almost forgotten about signing our names somewhere. What else would this trip “really” be for? OK, I had one problem. I forgot the paint back at Pon’s room. I was so angry at myself. Here we were, on the one and only (and the last) chance to go up and not sign our names. We were crushed until I looked down and there was a piece of metal on the ground. I picked it up with a sign of relief and carved my name into the frame. Brenna did the same. I thanked God for that chance. Perhaps it was something left up there for this purpose. It looked like we weren’t the first to carve instead of painting. So we did what we wanted, to get our closing picture for “The Galleon”. It was a good feeling, like the kind imagining a finished product. We didn’t want to leave so soon, but Brad had many things to do for the day. So we said goodbye to the top of the tower. On the way down, we felt different. We felt more than just a typical Harbor student. We now carried a 73 year-old legacy behind us. We were one of those who actually discovered the true heart of the school and the community. Going up there was the highest point of my experience at Harbor. Just standing at the bottom and looking up at the tower doesn’t cut it. Discovering the secret was key and I will dearly miss being able to go up again.
The way down wasn’t as creepy when we went up, but I would suggest that you don’t look down.
Yet More Secrets…
Brad locked that “mysterious stubby door”. Who knows when and if it will ever be opened again? Down the stairs we went back to Robins. The last place we had on the tour was yet another area that many don’t venture into, although it’s much more noticeable to the average person. Underneith the stage inside Loats Theater was an orchestra pit. How you got in there was the question. Throughout the backstage, choir (Room 137), and black box theater (Room 135) areas lies a basement underneith. The most noticeable way down was a ramp that was outside the props bay door behind the black box theater. Knowing Brad, he wasn’t going to bore us. So he took us to yet, another door down from the backstage door, similar to the door that is upstairs. Yes, one of those strange doors that don’t lead to a closet or a classroom.
Truely the Heart of the School
We proceeded down to be bombarded by two giant boilers. Now when we mean this is the heart of the school, it really is. The Tower is a big icon and it depicts tradition and history. What’s physically in the basement makes you rethink how the school operates. These two boilers deliver hot water to the entire campus, with the execption of the pool. The heating system in Robins used hot water to radiate air to each blower in all of the rooms. As time went on, Dodge and Beek halls were built and contained the same heating system piped right to here. Of course, the original boiler that was still intact down here had to be decommissioned back in the 1950’s as the campus expanded.
Out of the boiler room we went to a hallway that had several cages. The drama department still had several items down here. Brad mentioned that he still had to make several trips down here because someone forgot something important. A door at the end of the hallway went to the orchestra pit. A hallway was fenced off in the center. Apparently it’s a utility tunnel that goes to street (Irvine Ave). Here is where the school’s telephones, T1 data line, and the electrical for just Robins came in. Still, without this building, the school wouldn’t be able to function. All of it would have to be transplanted let’s say. Rerouting wires isn’t too bad, but pipes?
End of the Tour
Well, have we seen all there is to see? Pretty much. These were the places that many never had the chance to discover. We went out the same door we came in over by the library. It was a day to remember.
After graduating on June 18th, 2004, I stook around in Orange County for the next few years while I was in college. Having to go row at 6:30am, 6 days a week, with Coast Crew, I would pass by the corner of Irvine Avenue and 15th Street. There that tower stood. I could see it when I’d come back on Cliff Drive, even in the morning passing 17th Street on the way there. It was definitely an iconic figure for not just the school, but the city as well. Newport Beach, now past its 100-year anniversary, has very few figures dating back to its roots, such as the Pavilion on the Balboa Peninsula. The bell tower definitely served as an icon for so many years, and it will continue to do so. As time went on, you no longer heard a chime on the hour and then the hands on the clock stopped moving. It was clear depiction that something was going to happen.
Vandalism & Break-ins
Sadly, for the 4 years that the building was closed, numerous attempts of breaking in and vandalizing the place occurred. Just looking around the building you could see windows and doors boarded up that were torn off. Looking through windows you could see broken glass and leftover items that didn’t go into storage thrown all over the place. Robins Hall had many valuable and historical pieces that were either stolen or thrashed. I have in no doubt that some tried to get into the tower to sign their names and who knows what. One notable insident was dated on January 4th, 2007, by the Daily Pilot. Over $50,000 worth of lighting and sound equipment was stolen from Loats Theater. The district’s reaction to this was pretty disappointing to me. “The theater was going to be replaced anyways.” Come on, the equipment wasn’t that old! I guess everyone’s attitude was to let the place get ripped apart anyways since it was going to be replaced.
–more to write Summer 2021–
Demolition: August 9, 2007
During the Summer of 2007, signs that things were beginning to be town apart started with the removal of the adobe brick rooftop around the entire building. At 8:00am on August 9th, about a group of 3 dozen people stood around 15th street to watch the claw of the McCarthy demolition crew make the first strike. Ironically, the first room to go down was Schutz’s. I could easily agree with many that “I used to have a class right there,” indeed.
The Day of Reckoning: August 30, 2007
At approximately 8:28am on August 30th, 2007, the final strike of the wrecking ball hit the southwest corner of the tower. Over 400 people showed up just through word-of-mouth that morning to watch 77 years of history come to a close. Most were saddened by the event. Personally, I am happy to see that things are moving forward and am happy about the future of the school and what is to come with the replica of the building.
To be Politically Correct…
Running up to these events, I have to say the community was very divided when it came to supporting the Robins/Loats Reconstruction Project. The Measure F bond measure barely passed back in 2005 by the voters of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. Robins/Loats was the project on the top of the list. Unfortunately, many people felt that it was tax money being thrown out the door because it was benefiting certain schools and not throughout the district. “Why does Newport Habor get to look all spiffy with their campus and we get to look like a boot camp?” This is our world and I guess life’s never fair. It’s even more harder for people to understand what it’s like to loose an icon, especially not being part of it for so many years. Here’s what I think is a good solution. Get involved with what you do or support, whether it’s where you live, work, go to school, wherever, and support it. It doesn’t have to be monetarily. The crowd of people that showed up to see that last strike to the tower definitely tells us that there are people that support these efforts and the roots of their past. Make something happen. If you don’t get involved, you have no right to complain.
Some other comments that went around was how bad of a decision it was to have the tower town down. It’s important to understand that no matter how much it was dearly loved, we could not keep it. It could have surely passed to be preserved as a California historical monument, but here’s the catch. It sits on a public school and the higher priority is to protect the people that occupy the building. Sure, it probably would have remained up for many more years and we could have simply renovated the building. It withstood so much over the years as it was. But to retrofit the place would have made the building look very ugly, make some areas dysfunctional, and probably still not safe. It exceeded the benchmark for a retrofit anyways since the building was not made of a steel frame, except for parts of the theater as we are finding out. Because Robins was built right before the adoption of the 1933 Field Act, such reinforcement wasn’t regarded and emotion to keep the budget small was followed. I commend and support the new members of the Board of Education for their efforts during this movement.
I try to remain fairly moderate when it comes to politics. Your comments are greatly appreciated. Feel free to contact me on these matters.
At this day in time, I’m very excited to see the building being replicated for the future of the school and I can’t wait to come see it for the first time. I follow a quote that was said by Principal, Michael Vossen. “It’s important to realize that you will always continue to represent this school and its heritage, no matter who you become or where you live.” It’s strange going by there and not seeing that tall structure dominate the neighborhood anymore. May the next tower become the home to many more elite and adventurous students. Never forget your roots.
The New Tower
–to be written– Fall 2021
All content on this page is Copyright 2003-2021, Brandin Grams, other than content obtained by the Newport Mesa Unified School District and Newport Harbor High School. Certain Videos Copyright 2007, Don Leach Daily Pilot/LATimes and LPA Inc.