By Douglas Westfall
Killefer Grade School, constructed in the Cypress barrio in 1931 in the Mission Revival style, is named for Lydia Killefer. She taught from 1895 to 1931, when she was made principal of the school. Lydia lived nearby on Glassell at Maple, and walked to the school named for her.
The school building is one of the first -- if not the first -- school in California to self-integrate Hispanic children with the whites, 10 years before legislation required it. The building represents an important icon for the local community.
Architecturally, the near-90- year-old Mission Revival building is in incredibly good shape. The inside is covered with graffiti, the fixtures are damaged, and there is evidence of campfires. But those interior damages would be repaired as part of any renovation; structurally, the building is sound.
Two striking features grace the building: a hexagon tower over the main entry, with a copper weather vane and widow’s walk, and a north-facing bay window on the northeast corner auditorium.
Every room has large multi-pane windows in three center runs, and two additional outside runs, with transoms on the inside, under the patio roofline. Ceilings are 12 feet in all rooms, save lavatories, closets and utility rooms. An ornate wooden gate provides rear access to the south classroom. There is a small patio with a tree dating from the origins of the school.
History has no boundaries
Old Towne Orange, the third largest architectural historic district in America, includes part of the area known as the Cypress barrio north of the Plaza District. Plans are in place at city hall to extend the Old Towne Orange historic district both north into the barrio area, including the Killefer School, and south into the historic Nutwood Place, adjacent to Hart Park. This would not only provide additional protection for Killefer School, but the added real estate would push Old Towne Orange to be the second largest historic district in the nation.
The Cypress barrio was formed as a colonia by 1920. Immigrants came from the central area of Mexico to escape the dangerous environment of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The economic support of the area was primarily the citrus crop. The barrio men worked in the fields as pickers, and the women worked in the packing houses as packers. Pickers could receive up to 35¢ per hour, yet the packers received 40¢ per hour for grading oranges.
The barrio began between Sycamore and Walnut Avenues in the 400 block of Cypress Street, and spread out both north and south, adjacent to the rail lines. The small homes of the barrio were originally owned by Anglos, who rented them to the workers. Over the years, the workers built their own homes, or bought existing structures. One of these houses on N. Cypress is an 1890s Vernacular Victorian, and once had a small poolhall built adjacent to the home. Today there are over 200 historic homes in the Cypress barrio, of which over 80 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Two Hispanic populations evolved: migrants who rented local homes and traveled throughout the western U.S. for work, and residents who obtained jobs locally, and remained throughout the year. One boy who traveled extensively with his family, Jess Perez, eventually settled in another barrio in Orange, and grew up to be the mayor of Orange. Another young man who lived here permanently, Fred Barrera, became Orange’s mayor pro tem. He literally grew up across the street from the Killefer School.
All religious holidays were celebrated there, and twice a year a Jamaica Fair was held in the streets, with the electric power brought from the adjacent homes. Jamaica street fairs are named after the flowered juice beverage that comes from the hibiscus plant. Food, dancing, booths and music became the norm, and this was the forerunner of the Orange International Street Fair, started by two Hispanics and authorized by Mayor Jess Perez in 1973.
Killefer School, the first to be voluntarily desegrated before legislation required it, is an icon in the historic Cypress barrio.
The inside of the Killefer schoolhouse has been vandalized; some rooms were spray painted with graffiti, but the structure itself has withstood the test of time.
Photos courtesy Doug Westfall
Killefer School is surrounded by history