At left, Chinese boys from the Chung Mei School in El Cerrito attending Burbank Junior High in 1935. The school is now a federal historic landmark and plans are to re-open it as a public charter in 2014.
August 6, 2013: A six-building complex in El Cerrito (Contra Costa County) has been nominated by the California Historical Resources Commission to be placed on the federal National Register of Historic Places; the original application to the state commission was prepared by the El Cerrito Historical Society. The complex, currently owned by educational philanthropists Steve and Susan Chamberlin, was built in 1935 to house the Chung Mei School, an orphanage and school founded in Berkeley in 1923 by a Baptist Englishman/missionary for Chinese boys who, her wrote, were “orphans, half-orphans, foundlings and children from broken homes.” No other orphanage would take in “children of color or Asiatic races,” according to an account from the time.
The school left Berkeley when the property it was sitting on was condemned to build the Bay Bridge. The current site was chosen, according to a private Chinese family history, because there were no Chinese exclusion laws in El Cerrito.
The new property had formerly been the dairy of the Heidie family. The land was purchased ($10,000) with funds earned by the boys. They were very hard working and to generate the necessary funding they had a wood yard, produced musical performances and plays. The funding for the building came from generous individuals and community organizations. The building fundraiser brochure from 1933 has my Father [Philip Lim] on the cover...when he was 4 or 5. According to my Father's 1935 Burbank Junior High School yearbook all the Chung Mei boys transferred to schools in El Cerrito at that time.
In historical tours of the Chinese-themed (wind dragons are over the entrances) buildings, surviving "boys" diplomatically recall an impoverished, strict, military-style existence in the five-and-a-half acre hillside institution.
The Chamberlins -- Susan holds an architectural degree from Cornell; Steve is a developer and home-builder who was an adjunct professor at UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business for 16 years -- champion accessible, excellent public education and promote their mission through the Richmond-based Chamberlin Family Foundation. They purchased the property in December 2012 for $6.9 million; for 35 years previously it had been the private K-8 Windrush School. (Windrush was forced to closed in June 2012 after declaring bankruptcy in late 2011.)
The Chamberlins plan to continue the educational origins of the historic complexl by leasing it to charter-operator Summit Public Schools (assuming Silicon Valley-based Summit's charter petition is approved by the West Contra Costa School District board of trustees at its August 12 meeting). Steve Chamberlin told the El Cerrito Patch, ""Our intended use for this site is consistent with the way it was used originally, creating opportunities for kids who don't have very much."