By Ginny McPartland
The stomp of little feet can again be heard in the halls of the former Maritime Child Development Center in the World War II Home Front city of Richmond, California. After a $9 million restoration project, the hammers have stopped and the children again populate the school whose walls housed a progressive child care program for the pint-sized offspring of Kaiser Shipyard workers.
A neighborhood charter school program designed to radically improve educational success of low-income minority kids opened a new site this month in the renovated Maritime structure. Richmond College Prep Schools, chartered for kindergarten through Grade 6, welcomed two classes of first graders and two classes of kindergarteners on August 11.
The two-story, 1943-built school is located at Florida Street and Harbour Way, a short distance from the former shipyard sites. Richmond College Prep Schools serve families in the Santa Fe and Coronado neighborhoods in the Iron Triangle, an area including Central Richmond known for its high rate of crime.
As a joint venture among Richmond Community Foundation, the Rosie the Riveter national park, and the fundraising Rosie the Riveter Trust, the center also features a museum memorializing the original character of the center. The National Park Service staff has gathered and preserved child-sized tables and chairs, art easels, wooden toys and other artifacts from the World War II Richmond child care centers to re-create an authentic classroom environment.
The interpretive exhibits honor the female shipyard worker – the iconic Rosie the Riveter – and her male counterparts whose efforts contributed vastly to the war effort. The exhibits will also address California’s role in World War II and its impact on civil rights, health care, child care and labor. The park service will offer public tours of the museum beginning this fall.
Renovation project not that smooth
The $9 million restoration of the historic Maritime Child Development Center was funded with federal grants and donations through the Rosie the Riveter Trust and with contributions from the city of Richmond and the West Contra Costa County school district. Rehabilitation, including the use of green techniques to preserve the building’s historic designation, began in the spring of 2010 and was expected to be completed in the spring of 2011.
Unfortunately, the almost 70-year-old building offered unexpected problems. The 17,000-square-foot center was described in 2004 as: “Threatened and endangered, vacant and abandoned, with water damage, not seismically safe, with mold, asbestos and lead-based paint to remove, and not compliant with the American with Disabilities Act.” Add to these problems rain delays and utilities issues and it is no wonder the completion was delayed.
Child development center a historic treasure
At stake was one of the first federally built child service centers to be funded by the U.S. Maritime Commission. The center was established at the behest of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser who ran the four Richmond Shipyards. The workers in Kaiser’s West Coast shipyards in Richmond, California, and Portland, Oregon, set records for building war ships faster than any other yards. Richmond workers completed 747 Liberty and Victory ships during the wartime emergency.
To keep up the pace, Kaiser needed every worker he could get, including women and men of all ages and abilities. For the first time in history, women were performing industrial jobs formerly only done by men. That meant someone needed to take care of the children of the workers, many who had migrated away from their extended families in other regions of the U.S.
Henry Kaiser was not happy with mediocre care for the children. So he hired child care experts from UC Berkeley and elsewhere to develop an educational program and nurturing care program, including medical care, for the children. He funded the centers with federal Lanham Act money allocated for community services for war industry boom towns, such as Richmond, which had grown from a sleepy town of 23,000 people to more than 100,000.
The centers were designed with the advice of Catherine Landreth, a child development expert at UC Berkeley. Landreth recommended indoor and outdoor space for children to get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Music and art were incorporated into the educational program. Children who attended preschool at the Kaiser centers enjoyed warm meals, warm beds and plenty of attention throughout the day. Parents could leave their children while they worked any shift at the shipyards, and hot meals could be purchased at the center and taken home for the family.
Maritime center stayed open for six decades
When the war ended in 1945, federal funds were withdrawn for child care, and most centers across the country closed. In Richmond, however, the parents pleaded with the school district to keep the about 30 Richmond centers open. In the end, the state of California and the local school district funded the centers for many years after the war. The Maritime center and the Ruth Powers Child Development Center nearby on Cutting Boulevard are the only two remaining World War II child care facilities in Richmond. They continued to operate until 2004 with funding from the state of California Department of Education.
Richmond College Prep Schools, run by a private corporation called Richmond Elementary Schools, Inc., continues the tradition of progressive early childhood education at the site. “(Our) educational philosophy is centered on preparing students, beginning at four years of age, to succeed academically and emotionally in a college educational environment. This philosophy requires nurturing the expectations of academic success in families as well as students,” according to the school’s web site.
The Maritime center renovation is part of the Nystrom Urban Re Vitalization Effort (NURVE) that includes the Nystrom School modernization and a new athletic field for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. Both projects are around the corner from the Maritime building on Harbour Way.
By Ginny McPartland
Joe Fischer is no stranger to art. He’s no stranger to children’s art. A Berkeley resident and former UC Berkeley professor, Joe Fischer has written five books on Indonesian art and culture. He spent 25 years visiting and studying Indonesia, and he has been curator of many exhibits on Indonesian traditional art and children’s art.
Joe Fischer is also no stranger to war. He served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater during World War II and visited the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki within two weeks after their destruction by Allied atomic bombs.
So when Joe heard about the rich collection of children’s art from the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards child care centers, needless to say, he was intrigued. The more he explored the boxes full of children’s paintings and cut-and-paste artwork preserved at the Richmond Museum of History, the more fascinated he became.
Joe quickly understood the significance of the children’s uninhibited observations of life on the home front. Given the creation in 2000 of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front national park in Richmond, Joe’s passion for bringing the art to light seemed to hit the right note. Sharing his enthusiasm with the staff of the new park, they agreed the museum had indeed captured a national treasure-trove.
The little noticed collection of 5,000-plus pieces brims with creativity,individuality, emotion and small-child confidence. Joe’s diligent study and interpretation of the art –and the enthusiastic support of the museum board of directors – culminated this summer in the publication of “Children’s Art & Children’s Words.” The book includes 185 color plates of the artwork, as well as direct quotes from the 2- to 12-year-olds about their masterpieces as told to their teachers.
Focus on individual artists
“The focus (of this book) is on the paintings of individual children, comments by them and their teachers, and the environment in which this took place,” Joe says in the introduction. “The child care program in all its various aspects was an extraordinary educational model. It provided care, nurture, materials, and creative outlets for thousands of children. Such a comprehensive child care program had probably never existed in the United States before the war nor has one been developed since, he adds.
The children’s art collection, which includes pieces from 1943 through 1966, only exists due to the foresight of the late Monica Haley, longtime art director of the child care centers. She retained the children’s work and their comments conscientiously, realizing their historical value. Subsequent to her retirement in 1966, Haley donated the entire collection to the Richmond Museum of History. Richmond’s child care centers’ art created after that date has been lost to history. Joe devotes a whole chapter of the book to Haley.
Kaiser child care breaks new ground
The Richmond child care program began in 1943 through the collaboration of Henry J. Kaiser, the U.S. Maritime Commission and the Richmond school district. Kaiser, who ran the shipyards, saw the critical need for high quality, around-the-clock care for the children of mothers working on ships. Although society had frowned on mothers working outside the home, the war urgency put that attitude on hold.
Kaiser worked through the Maritime Commission to obtain funds to build and subsidize the centers, and the school district received federal funds. The Lanham Act set up wartime funding to help war production communities, like Richmond, accommodate ballooning populations. The federal money earmarked initially for fire stations, roads, schools, and other local services, was also approved for construction and operation of child care centers.
The Richmond child care program had 14 sites during the war years. Set up by the best child care experts of the time, including Catherine Landreth, PhD, of the UC Berkeley Institute of Child Welfare, the program was groundbreaking. The buildings were thoughtfully designed to make the environment comfortable and healthy for children.
The routine included a health check, nutritious meals planned by a dietitian, plenty of rest, outside play, and lessons in art and music. There were sleeping rooms for naps and overnight stays, child-sized sinks and toilets, lockers, and a sick room to isolate ailing students. The school district took care in making the experience educational and stimulating. For all this, the parents paid 50 cents a day, 60 cents if they had breakfast.
Bubble bursts when war ends
After the war, the shipyards closed and the federal funding for child care centers dried up. But there were still many women in Richmond and many other places who wanted or needed to continue working. So the Richmond community lobbied the federal and state government to continue the funding. They were successful, and California became one of only few states that continued child care after the war.
At the same time, the Kaiser Shipyards child care programs in Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, shut down completely. The Northwest child care centers, also influenced by UC Berkeley child development experts, did not have the community support needed to keep them open. However, experience in these child care centers contributed invaluably to the study of child development, and the legacy informs current practice.
The Richmond schools continued to operate preschools on essentially the same wartime principles until around 1967. A variety of federal, state and local funding sources, including Head Start, have continued a semblance of the program to the present.
One of the original Kaiser-built centers, the Maritime Child Development Center at 10th and Florida streets in Richmond, has been designated a national historical landmark. Renovation of the center is under way, and Rosie the Riveter/World War II National Historical Park museum curators are collecting and interpreting historical artifacts, such as furniture from the original wartime program. The center, to house classrooms and a National Park Service museum, is scheduled to open in 2011.
The Richmond Museum of History also operates the restored SS Red Oak Victory, a World War II ship built in Richmond and docked at the Rosie the Riveter national park. To find out more: ssredoakvictory.org.