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The historic Chung Mei building at Windrush School in El Cerrito, Calif. on Tuesday, April 26, 2011. (Dean Coppola/Staff Archives)

EL CERRITO -- The Chung Mei School, an iconic complex of buildings at 1800 Elm St., was nominated by a state agency Friday to be included in the National Register of Historic Places.

The school was built in 1935 as an orphanage and school for Chinese boys and that use qualifies it to receive recognition in the federal register for its historic and cultural significance, according to Tom Panas of the El Cerrito Historical Society.

This would be the city's first designated landmark.

Panas said he did about 500 hours of research to prepare an application to the California Historical Resources Commission, which nominated it Friday to the federal Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places for national recognition.

The historic Chung Mei building at Windrush School in El Cerrito, Calif. on Tuesday, April 26, 2011.  (Dean Coppola/Staff Archives)
The historic Chung Mei building at Windrush School in El Cerrito, Calif. on Tuesday, April 26, 2011. (Dean Coppola/Staff Archives)

The school was listed automatically with the California Register of Historical Resources when the commission agreed to nominate it to the federal agency, Panas said.

A listing on the California register means that property owners Steve and Susan Chamberlin can't make any changes that would alter the architectural character of the four original campus buildings without doing an environmental impact report, Panas said.

The federal designation would prevent owners from receiving federal aid for a project that would alter the character of the buildings, he said.

The Chamberlins, principals of the Richmond-based Chamberlin Foundation, purchased the school in December for $6.9 million and want to lease the six-building complex to Summit Public Schools to house a charter school.

The campus formerly housed the private Windrush School, which ceased operations in June of last year.

The Chamberlins plan to move ahead with a lease agreement if West Contra Costa School District trustees approve Summit's charter petition at their Aug. 12 meeting.

"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," Steve Chamberlin said.

Chamberlin said he doesn't think restrictions on the property would affect his plans to upgrade the building to house another school.

He said he needs to install an elevator to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards as well as a central heating system that complies with current energy codes and seismic upgrades.

"(Windrush) plugged in little wall heaters, and we're not going to do that," Chamberlin said. "We plan to respect the architectural character and create a high quality educational experience."

The Chamberlins opposed including the school gymnasium in the historic registry, arguing that previous changes to its structure had rendered it "architecturally compromised."

However, the state commission decided to include it since the campus was nominated on the grounds of its cultural rather than architectural significance, Panas said.