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Ellen's Playhouse

It was the 5th of July, the weather was cloudy and cool, and there was a large turnout of 46 walkers and two K-9 best friends at the Exedra for our Piedmont Recreation Department's Walking on Wednesdays walk.

Karin F had created a treat for us. She was interested in the historic ceiling panels of the Ellen Driscoll Playhouse at Havens School. Karen reached out to Pete P, Piedmont school's Director of Facilities and Construction Manager, to see if we could go inside for a look. Pete graciously said yes and that he would meet us at the playhouse.

Before we started off there were some announcements. On July 19th Hope S will come back to lead a tour of sustainable, native Piedmont gardens. Next, it was noted the Post's program for the previous day's 4th of July Piedmont Parade listed the Wednesday walkers as one of the marching groups. We had talked about it, but decided not to be in the parade. However, not wanting to fail the commitment, we decided we would parade down Highland Avenue, but just one day later than the other people. The playhouse was on the parade route which made it easy too.

Off we marched to the playhouse where Pete was waiting. Everyone went inside with Pete, who shared some history, and told us about the ceiling, as well as badly needed repairs that were done to the building.

Piedmont's first public elementary school was built in 1910 and opened its doors in 1911. It was originally named "The Bonita Avenue School," but was later renamed "Frank C. Havens Elementary School" after the land donor. The school was expanded under the New Deal in the 1930s. After the school board gained funding from the Public Works Administration (PWA) in 1933, work on a new five-classroom wing and an auditorium on the eastern edge of the school

began in 1936.

The classrooms were built in 1937-38 and the auditorium was added in 1940-42. It was named in honor of Ellen Driscoll, who was Havens' first principal and taught at the school for 20 years. Students participated in painting the ceilings of all the Piedmont school auditoriums. Fifth and sixth graders at Havens painted the panels in a paint-by-number fashion before they were applied to the ceiling. The theme at Havens' Ellen Driscoll Playhouse is California history.

Pete explained that some panels' cultural representations are not considered appropriate today. The panels have been turn around and their blank backs are now seen. The expectation is that they will be replaced in the future with images that reflect current values. After a good conversation, we thanked Pete for enabling our visit and posed for a photo with him outside

the playhouse.

We continued on down Highland Avenue to Park Way, where groups are staged for the parade. Some Highland Avenue trivia was shared. Its original name, given by Walter Blair, was Vernal Avenue. It has four lanes from Park Way to Vista Avenue, but only two from Park to Moraga Avenue because Key System trains turned down Park. Since they didn't go to Moraga, only two lanes were needed for cars on this portion of the street.

We made an about face and marched down the parade route on Highland's east sidewalk. We went past the town center buildings, but there was time for more walking, talking, and history, so we continued on Highland to Hazel Lane.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Amy Requa Long wanted her daughters to have good educations, and she got Isaac Requa to build a one-room schoolhouse on his property for her. Long hired a teacher for her daughters and a few neighborhood children. This was the very first school in Piedmont. Interest in the private school grew and in 1905 Amy leased a house at the

corner of Highland Avenue and Hazel Lane. She also hired Marion Ransom and Edith Bridges from the Anna Head School in Berkeley to be the new school's teachers.

The school attracted the daughters from many prominent Piedmont and California families, and soon outgrew its space. In 1908 Amy Long hired Julia Morgan to design a new school building with classroom and dormitory rooms on five acres of land that is now Hazel Lane. The new Miss Ransom and Miss Bridges School for Girls opened in 1913. Soon after additional classrooms and a gymnasium were added. The school had dormitory rooms for up to 70 students from first grade through high school. In 1924 there were 186 students and in 1928 there were 21 teachers and 42 graduating seniors.

However, the Stock Market crashed in 1929 and the following Depression created financial difficulties for many parents sending their daughters to the school. Piedmont High was less expensive and Ransom Bridges' enrollment declined dramatically. In 1932 there were only 12 graduating seniors and it closed in June that year. In 1936 the school building was demolished and the land was developed by architect Albert Farr as Ransom Gardens.

We walked through the Hazel Lane loop to the school's former site at 141 Hazel Lane. As we admired the home, the owner, Jody Cornelius, came out and talked with us. We completed the loop and took the hidden pathway on Hazel to Guildford Avenue and the town center to complete our fun 5th of July parade walk.


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