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Op-Ed: Saving historic maritime service officers training school

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Facing pending demolition, grassroots efforts are intensifying to place the U.S. Maritime Service Officers Training School in Alameda, Calif.

Historic photo of view from Glory of the Seas, Seamanship/Navigation building, 1943. (Credit: National Archives)

Time is running out. Facing pending demolition, grassroots efforts are intensifying to place the U.S. Maritime Service Officers Training School in Alameda, Calif., (active 1943-1954) onto the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). This site was one of only two schools in the nation during WWII, where merchant mariners with at least 14 months of sea experience could come ashore and undergo a rigorous and intensive four-month training course to become officers (the other was Fort Trumbull in Connecticut). During the Korean Conflict (1950-53), the Alameda facility was the only such maritime service officers training school for officers.

More than 6,500 officers graduated from Alameda’s program during WWII. These ambitious merchant mariners often manned ships with limited crews transporting sometimes unknown cargo in perilous conditions. U.S. Merchant Marine (USMM) veterans from this era like to recount that on the rare occasions when a Liberty ship was transferred to the Navy, its skeleton crew of 50 mariners would be replaced by a much larger contingent of 300+ sailors. Despite sustaining the highest casualty rate during WWII (estimated 1 in 26), these merchant mariners did not receive full veteran’s recognition until 1988, and only in March 2020 was a congressional bill signed into law to honor them collectively with a Congressional Gold Medal.

The original campus was built on the site of Neptune Beach in Alameda, an amusement park popular with Bay Area residents in the 1920s. When the park closed, the site was chosen by the War Shipping Administration as the ideal location for a west coast training school. The Officers Training School comprised 22 buildings across 32 acres, with numerous purpose-built structures specific to the unique training required for deck and engineering officers. Approximately 13.5 acres and 13 buildings remain of the original campus due to the encroachment of the surrounding city over the decades. But if local developers prevail, there may not be much left to save.

In 2019, Alameda voters approved a city measure to repurpose and renovate the remaining buildings at the site. But a year and half later, the developer sought demolition permits which prompted local preservation advocates to nominate the U.S. Maritime Service Officers Training School as a historic district. The nomination seeks to properly honor the legacy of the USMM and was originally submitted in May 2021. It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that one of the great mysteries of the site was resolved, that the primary architect of the project was Harry Bruno, a renowned and prolific California architect.

A 1932 UC Berkeley graduate, Bruno was an inducted American Institute of Architects Fellow, whose prolific career included designing the original Jack London Square in Oakland, marinas, schools, and private homes including an expansion of the personal residence of R. Stanley Dollar Jr., heir to the Robert Dollar Shipping Company (precursor to the American Presidents Line). A local volunteer and researcher unearthed the architect’s identity after locating original blueprints in the storage room of the Alameda Museum. Equally important was the builder of the school. Fred. J. Early Jr., who went on to join the Navy Construction Battalion and landed on the beaches of Normandy. He designed rhino piers to assist in the war efforts and joined General Patton in the crossing of the Rhine. Surprisingly, a prestigious San Francisco architecture firm hired by the federal government in 1996 to research the site was unable to locate the blueprints, leading them to assume that the architect was unknown.

The internal review process by the California Office of Historic Preservation was completed in January 2022 and the nomination to the NRHP was supported by staff historians. It was then scheduled to be reviewed by the California State Historic Preservation Commission twice last year in April and again in August, which would decide whether or not to officially recommend the site to the Keeper of the NRHP at the National Park Service. There were over 80 individual letters of support submitted for the nomination, including a petition with over 1,000 signatures. Letters in support mostly focused on the critical and historically neglected role played by merchant mariners in WWII and the Korean conflict. The American Merchant Marine Veterans organization, recognizing USMM accomplishments for our country in war and peace, has been a strong supporter of the nomination.

At the last minute, letters of opposition came in from the Mayor of Alameda, State Sen. Nancy Skinner, and Assembly-person Mia Bonta (wife of Attorney General Rob Bonta, both residents of Alameda) centered on clearing the way for a developer to begin demolition. Although land use is not in the purview of the State Historic Resources Commission, the State Office of Historic Preservation decided to pull the item from the agenda on the day of the meeting citing a “lack of integrity”.

An appeal to the Keeper of the NRHP was submitted the following week, and was sustained on September 22, 2022, saying that the site appears “to retain sufficient integrity to convey the significance of the property and its historic training operations.” The Keeper instructed the California State Office of Historic Preservation to process the nomination “without delay”. Nearly a year later, the nomination has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, despite persistent and reasonable requests. It is our hope that the nomination will finally receive a fair hearing by the Commission.

Letters of support are requested from all those who support the U.S. Merchant Marine, including veteran and active duty merchant mariners, maritime unions, and maritime industries to save the last remaining buildings as historic resources for the city of Alameda, the state of California, and the United States.

To submit letters of support, contact:

Joy Beasley, Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service

1849 C Street, NW (7228), Washington , DC 20240

Email: joy_beasley@nps.gov


Julianne Polanco, California Office of Historic Preservation

1725 23rd St., Suite 100, Sacramento, CA 95816-7100

Email: Julianne.Polanco@parks.ca.gov

Contact Carmen Reid, member of the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society, for more

information at carmereid@gmail.com.

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