National Schools, Los Angeles
In 1903, Vrena Bender Rosenkrantz saw her first automobile. It had just been purchased by a wealthy Los Angeles businessman. Back then, automobiles were very uncommon and regarded with suspicion. Like many others Mrs. Rosenkrantz’s first impression was that it was a toy for the idle rich, but her second thought was that someday there would be a need for people to repair the automobiles that would soon foul the air and clog the streets of her beloved Los Angeles.
Joseph and Vrena Rosenkrantz, through inheritance, were themselves wealthy, even by California standards, and they were both people of action. In less than two years Vrena had gathered the funding and found the facilities to support a faculty, a curriculum, and an educational development plan for what would become America’s first technical school.
The first class in automobile mechanics had three students. An instructor hired by Mrs. Rosenkrantz herself taught it in 1905; each student paid $25 tuition.
Over the next few years, the number of automobiles grew dramatically, and more and more students came to the school to learn automobile repair. As Vrena added programs and staff, classroom space became a constant problem. The school moved at least three times within downtown Los Angeles, and finally in 1920 as Joseph assumed management, they purchased land on the southeast corner of Figueroa and Santa Barbara Avenue. Meyer and Holler (a well-established southern California construction company) was commissioned to build the new school. As a firm famous for other California buildings, including the Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theaters, they followed their mandate well; the school was larger than had ever been seen in Los Angeles.
The new building opened in April 1923 and became an instant landmark. At the time it was the largest building west of Kansas City. The façade of the three-story structure had gracefully curved arches that soon engendered the LA legend of “meet me under the arches.” The building’s street frontage was rented to commercial shops and restaurants.
For the students, there were classrooms, laboratories, workshops, dormitories, a library and gymnasium. It also had a public garage, where customers could have their cars repaired by students at greatly reduced prices, but with full guarantees. Over 200 students could receive instruction at the same time. It was then that it became the largest trade school in the U.S.
The school advertised heavily in technical magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. They also used newspapers and did several general mailings, mostly on postcards – like the one you see here.
The automotive school also offered correspondence courses to students across the country and all over the world. Some of the correspondence courses were offered in Spanish and because the Spanish language courses were so popular a branch campus was opened in Mexico City.
There were also plans for a new campus along Exposition Boulevard between La Brea and Crenshaw. However, school officials decided to expand the Figueroa and Santa Barbara campus instead.
As technology advanced, new schools were added, including programs in aviation, radio repair, and radio broadcasting. In the mid-1930s when Diesel engines became practical, the school had to expand again to accommodate another in-flux of students.
During World War II, the school trained hundreds of soldiers as radio technicians, electricians, and automotive mechanics. The school grew so large and so fast that in late 1942, the school and its officials were indicted in Federal court for trying to defraud the government, but after a three-day trial, the officials were acquitted of the charges because no act of wrongdoing was discovered.
After the war ended, enrollment swelled even more as returning soldiers used their G.I. benefits to pay for education. As the post-war economy regained a confident consumer focus, there was more demand for automobiles—and people to repair them. Television was another growing post-war industry, and the school programs in television repair. Classes in home appliance repair and heating and air conditioning were also implemented.
In late 1959, the name “National Schools” changed to “National Technical Schools (NTS).” Ownership and control of the institution passed to the employees, and through the next three decades, NTS became increasingly dependent, on government funding. Soldiers returning from Korea and Vietnam brought in more G.I. bill money; other students used federal and/or state financial aid to pay their tuition. The high-tech 1980s brought new courses in computer programming and repair and even robotics.
An Encino-based company, United Education and Software (UES) bought NTS in late 1985. UES already operated twelve other trade schools in California under the name “Pacific Coast College.” Initially UES, which had been struggling, got a financial boost from its acquisition of NTS, but unfortunately, things did not go well for either NTS or UES. UES declared bankruptcy in 1989 and closed every campus.
The ornate, Italian-styled building remained until it was demolished in 1998. Today, a Chevron station and a McDonald’s restaurant occupy the site.
The postcard above was mailed in 1942 by Pvt. John Lucari. John’s message, addressed to Bette, was so praise-worthy of his experience at the school that I decided to do some research. John enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942. He served four years as a combustion engine mechanic, most likely using the skills he was taught at the National School. Peter Lucari, Jr., John’s younger brother, told me how John liked to brag about his willingness to “stay put.” He claimed that after he got home from his service in February 1946, he never left home again. He lived in the same house his entire life. John died in 2003 at age 86.