Graduate mastermind behind redesign

Architect Erwin Lee designed updated library and locker rooms

Steffi Lau, staff writer
El Estoque, Monta Vista High School Newspaper
October 21, 2005

Thirty years ago, Erwin Lee walked the hallways of Monta Vista’s buildings among the other students, as an “average student” in his own words. Now, Lee, a graduate of the class of 1975, is making his mark on the school he once attended by designing its new buildings.

Lee, architect for the library and auditorium, said, “I did all the same things that everyone else did in high school.” But when asked about his high school memories, instead of giving the typical recollections, he recalled admiring the buildings as he said, “One of the things I always liked about this school was the two-story buildings…how during passing period you could see people walking around on the different levels.”

The Fremont Union High School District began modernizing its five high schools’ facilities in 1998—the reason for MVHS’ new D-building, library and auditorium as well as the continuing reconstruction of the locker rooms and, in the near future, the gym, main office, ASB and cafeteria building.

Lee said, “When we went to the interview for the job, it was exciting for me because it was the same high school district… I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get MV right off the bat. Another architectural team got that and we were assigned Homestead. But I guess as fate would have it, under some matter of circumstances, we ended up here finishing up the rest of the projects at MV.”

Lee’s company, Deems Lewis McKinley, designed the new library and an additon to the music building for Homestead High before transferring their efforts to designing MVHS' library and auditorium.

Asked if any of his experiences as a student affected how he built the library, Lee laughed, “The irony is, I didn’t remember the library that well. I guess I didn’t go there that much, but coming back into it, all of a sudden, it came back to me…you know, it was always kind of a dark place, in more ways than one.”

“So that was one of the things, once we started the project, to make it a lighter and more inviting area with all the glass. The windows were small for such a big building, although I always kind of liked the covered walkways that went around the building.”

He and his architectural team tried to incorporate the aspects of MV’s original architecture into the library. “We wanted to maintain some of the motifs going on, like the brick walls on all the buildings here, so we decided to put brick on [the library],” he said. “We tried to match the brick as close as we could to the brick that was here before, which was a real challenge to do. We wanted the library to fit in with the campus and not just plop down something that had nothing to do with what had been here.”

Lee emphasized meeting the clients’ needs as he detailed the process of making the plans for design. As the first part of the design process, he meets with the administrators, principal, teachers, and in this case, the library staff to discover what they are looking for. He then takes their ideas and needs and incorporates them into the design.

Asked what it has been like so far working with Lee and his company, Principal April Scott said, “It’s been extremely positive. He has a great gift for listening to what we want such as the different necessities, functions…He really listens and throws out clarifying questions and new suggestions…He’s been very responsive to us. He wants to make sure it’s done right.”

Lee’s company specializes in designing educational facilities, with schools as 95 percent of its clients. “What’s nicest about doing school projects is that the people you are designing for are the ones that end up using the building,” Lee said. “We’re doing it as a community. We’re not doing it because the school’s going to go out there and make money. We’re doing it because we believe that good architecture helps the educational process by enhancing the educational environment. We believe that students learn better in nicer spaces.”

As for his own days as a student, Lee always had an interest in art and architecture, taking drafting and art at MVHS. He attended Berkley for four years before moving on to Harvard’s School of Design as a graduate student.

Lee mused that one of the most interesting things in returning to MV was finding that some of the teachers he had were still here, recounting the surprise of being reunited with assistant principal Fred Keep, his former history teacher.

He said, “Actually there’s a handful, a lot of them I noticed are over at the district office now.”

Inquiring about the various teachers he had, after being told that math teacher Emmett Powers is still teaching, he exclaimed, “Emmett Powers? He’s still here? I didn’t know he was here…I had him for…it was algebra, I think. I’m going to have to go find him.”

Besides the perk of being able to call his former teachers by their first names, Lee seems to genuinely enjoy the feeling of returning to his alma mater, saying, “I would have never have imagined back then that I would one day return to do these projects for Monta Vista.” And who else can say that more than 30 years after freshmen PE, they returned to their high school to tear down the locker rooms?

©2014-2015 Steffi Lau. All rights reserved.