Historic Structures

Waco High School, Waco Texas

Date added: September 4, 2022 Categories: Texas School

The Waco High School complex is a landmark in Waco's Central Business District, and includes the 1912 Beaux-arts school building, the 1924 Gothic Revival auditorium, and the 1955 mid-century modern music building. It served as the city's primary high school from 1912 through 1971, with an all-white student body until integration of the Waco school district in the late 1960s. The completion of the Waco High School was a high point in the public school district's plan to modernize the school system in the first half of the 20th century. Its monumental presence recalls an era when local school districts constructed educational buildings that symbolized the importance of education to the community. The school building is the oldest extant public school building in Waco.

Free education in the State of Texas began with the passage of an act in 1854 to provide funding for county public schools. McLennan County created fourteen school districts, which were increased to thirty-three districts in later years. The City of Waco and environs was designated as District Number 1. In 1875, the Texas Legislature authorized city governments to assume control of public schools within their established city limits, and the Waco city council decided to exercise their new rights. The city needed income to fund the schools, but in 1875 voters decided not to institute a school tax. Nevertheless, the city council appointed an education committee and the mayor served as the superintendent of schools. To acquire money to run the free public schools, three leagues of land (about 13,285 acres) in Eastland County that the state gave to the school system in 1854 were sold, beginning in 1876, netting an average of $2.86 per acre, totaling $57,376.74 by 1919.

In the late nineteenth century, education in the Waco area was dominated by private and denominational schools, which received tuition from their students. Although the city council had assumed responsibility for free public education in their city, their ability to organize schools and hire teachers was limited until 1882. At the beginning of the school year, only 342 students attended the free public schools, and only one principal was on the payroll, Captain J. T. Strain of the East Waco School. The education of these students was paid for by state appropriations. However, in the fall of 1882, the city council hired J. N. Gallagher as the principal of the Central School, and a local school tax was passed on December 11, 1882. The school system was now ready to offer graded free public education. Gallagher was subsequently appointed to be supervisor of schools.

J. N. Gallagher was quick to implement a new school system. By the end of December 1882, the Waco free public school system had an established school term of nine months, eight grades were offered, and all schools had a uniform study program and set of textbooks. The scholastic census of 1882 completed by the county assessor counted one "white" and one "colored" school in East Waco, and one "white" and two "colored" schools west of the Brazos River. All told, there were 948 white students (479 male and 451 female) and 403 black students (231 male and 172 female) enrolled, a jump of almost 400 percent from the beginning of the school year.

The city council arranged for the construction of several new buildings in the school year of 1884-1885 to accommodate the 1,320 students (716 white and 604 black) and 18 teachers. Previously, the public school system had slowly absorbed the facilities and staff from some of the smaller private schools in Waco. Now, however, the city was able to build facilities, including three new buildings for white students, and two for black students. Ninth and tenth grades were added in 1884-1885, and eleventh grade was offered shortly thereafter. Five students graduated from eleventh grade in 1887.

By the late 1880s, there were finally enough students completing the higher grades to warrant a new high school. Central High School was located on the corner of South 4th Street and Webster; it was completed on October 10, 1887 by John H. Neil for $24,999. It was a brick two-story building with a tower trimmed in white stone, housing seventh through eleventh grades. Eighty-eight feet of the building fronted South 4th Street and 81 feet faced Webster. Entrances were located on both sides. Toilets were located outside until the building was connected to the sewer system in 1897, and the boys and girls playgrounds were separated by a high wooden fence. The superintendent of school's office was also located in the building. Central High School operated in the school system for 65 years and served as the only high school for the City of Waco for 25 years until it was replaced by the building on Columbus Avenue and North 8th Street.

Mr. Gallagher resigned at the end of the 1887-1888 school year to pursue a career as a lawyer. Mr. A. McGregor replaced him as superintendent of schools, but was quickly replaced by Mrs. Willie D. House, the first female superintendent of schools in the region, who was hired for the 1889-1890 school year. During her tenure the Central High School was repaired and updated. In 1883, control of the day-to-day operations of the public school system was transferred from the city council to a board of trustees. However, the finances were still managed by the city council. Apparently, the board of trustees was more conservative than the city council, as Mrs. House was not reappointed as superintendent for the 1893-1894 school year. She was replaced by Charles V. Alexander. Six years later, in 1899, Alexander was replaced by John L. Lattimore, who served for 15 years. As another sign of the social attitude of the board of trustees, in 1898 they implemented a policy that no married female teachers were allowed employment in the school system. Once a female teacher married, the event was considered an automatic resignation. The policy was suspended temporarily due to the lack of male or single female teachers during World war I, but it was not fully suspended until the 1960s.

Through most of the 1890s, the agricultural economy, particularly cotton, was hit by both falling prices and a low yield. At the time, Waco was the hub of the transportation network linking area cotton farmers, and the town was poised to feel the effects of the downturn of the economy. Although the national economy began to recover in the late 1890s, the Waco area struggled to acquire sufficient funds for the public school system. In 1898, the Central High School at 4th and Webster was no longer adequate for the school district's needs, and the principal wanted to make additions to the building, but the board of trustees and the superintendent decided that the public would not accept a tax increase at the time and plans for additions to the school were postponed. In addition, the school system had to obtain yet another loan of $10,000 from the city council just to keep operating. Between 1893 and 1900, the school system had to borrow thousands of dollars from local banks and the city council to meet operating expenses.

By the turn of the century the situation was increasingly dire. Between 1899 and 1909, Waco's population had increased by 18 percent from 24,084 to 29,360. The scholastic population had experienced a 19 percent growth from 3,912 to 4,834, and enrollment jumped 22 percent from 3,726 to 4,757. The need for building space almost doubled. To meet the increasing need, the city council was asked for a school bond election in February 1901, but by May 1902 they had not responded. The school had to rent rooms to alleviate overcrowding. In September 1902, the city council was again asked to implement a special school tax, and again they did not respond. Finally, by May 1903, the city council approved a school bond election for $60,000 for new buildings and improvements. The voters also approved the school bond, but the continuing economic depression resulted in no bond sales. Instead, the school system was forced to use the bonds as collateral to local banks for additional loans. Subsequently, Central High School received four new rooms. Finally, the school tax was raised to 45¢ for every $100 in October 1905.

In the 1909-1910 school year, an assessment of the school systems assets counted 10 white schools and three black schools, with a combined value of $282,440. The breakdown is as follows:

White Schools:
North 4th Street, 6 classrooms value:$17,050
Columbus Street, 10 classrooms value:$31,710
South 8th Street (Sul Ross), 12 classrooms value:$32,020
South 3rd Street (Jean Sherwood), 8 classrooms value:$26,280
East Waco, Turner Street, 9 classrooms value:$16,425
Bell's Hall, 8 classrooms value:$24,780
Brook Ave., 8 classrooms value:$24,780
Sanger Ave., 10 classrooms value:$value:$30,563
North Waco, 3 classrooms value:$2,020
High School (4th and Webster), 19 classrooms value:$57,300

Black Schools:
North 7th Street, 4 classrooms value:$5,140
Clay and 1st Street, 10 classrooms value:$11,185
East Waco, 3 classrooms value:$3,187

By 1909, the time had come to build a new high school, and the school district requested a bond election totaling $40,000 for the construction of the building. The city council was about to agree, but a few prominent citizens hinted that 1910 would be a better year for an election. Voters approved the measure on March 23, 1910. By April, several properties on Columbus Ave. between North 8th and North 9th Streets were chosen for the site of the new high school. At the time, the property on the corner of North 9th Street and Columbus Ave. (823 Columbus Ave.) was owned by George Clark, an attorney and judge, who lived there with another family member (perhaps a brother), Edwin (or Erwin) J. Clark. Up until 1910, George Clark had been a partner in the firm Clark and Bolinger, with an office in the Clark Building on Franklin Street. However, by 1910 he and Edwin partnered with James E. Yantis in the firm Clark, Yantis, and Clark, with an office in the Clark Building at 314% Franklin Street. The property adjacent to the Clark residence, 809 Columbus Ave., appeared to be a boarding house with three residents in 1910, and the property on the corner of North 8th Street and Columbus Ave., 803 Columbus Ave., was owned by Herman L. Quinius who retained two boarders on the property. An alley separated these properties from the single large parcel surrounded by North 8th Street, Jefferson Ave., and North 9th Street. Several buildings with different addresses were located on this parcel, the largest of which appeared to be another boarding house at 318 8th Street. The property was owned by the Barnard Estate, and the large house was most likely the former residence of the Barnard family. A peach orchard was located on the site in the 1880s and early 1890s. The school system bought the lots facing Columbus Ave. (803, 809, and 823) and about half of the Barnard Estate. A portion of the estate facing Jefferson Ave. was not purchased until the 1920s and the 1940s, when the gymnasium (1924) and music building (1955) were built.

Construction of the new school began immediately, but by August 1911, the board of trustees was informed that the building would not be ready by September 18th as planned. Due to the delay, the high school grades were taught for one-half day at the Central High School until the new building was complete. Concerns that the building was not structurally sound led the board to hire a professor from Texas A&M University to test the building. He concluded that the building was indeed perfectly sound, and the school opened on April 8, 1912. The 9th through 11th grades were moved from the old Central High School to the new Waco High School, marked by a ceremony where the students walked from the old building on 4th and Webster to the new building on 815 Columbus Ave. The old high school essentially became a junior high school, continuing to teach the 7th and 8th grades. The building has since been demolished.

The Waco High School included the extant flagpole donated by Texas Christian University, who had erected the flagpole at their campus on 18th Street between Kyle and Alexander Streets prior to moving to a new location. In the beginning, the high school grounds were separated into a girls section and a boys section, but by 1918 those distinctions were dissolved. The superintendent's office, previously located in a wood frame building at the Central High School at 4th Street and Webster, was moved to the Waco High School grounds in 1912. In 1919, the office was relocated to the Amicable Insurance Company (ALICO) Building. Mr. Lattimore, the superintendent of schools since 1899 and through the construction and opening of the new high school, was tragically killed in a traffic accident as he was bicycling home from his office at the Waco High School on March 17, 1915, and was replaced by Bruce Cobb.

World War I erupted a few years after the new high school opened, and one room was set aside for French lessons for local recruits and soldiers from Camp MacArthur. The students and faculty were carefully watched for "unpatriotic" opinions, and one faculty member was dismissed for his questionable loyalty to the United States. Coursework in German, added to the curriculum in 1908, was discontinued. All school-age boys were to take military training if fit, and received one half credit for their efforts. They were allowed to wear their uniforms at school. At one point during the war Principal Genheimer was accused of disloyalty, but the board of trustees utterly discounted the accusation and the complainant apologized for making the accusation. Several students in 1917 and 1918 served in the war and died in combat, and were memorialized at the school.

Between the world wars, the population of Waco, as well as the student population, increased. Racial segregation policy required the operation Waco High School for white students, and a separate "colored" high school. Until 1961, these served as the only high schools in Waco, although the location of the black high school changed in 1925 when Moore High School was constructed. Waco High School expanded its northern wing along North 8th Street in 1915, the south wing along North 9th Street and the auditorium was added in 1921, and a large block parallel to Jefferson Avenue linking the two wings in 1929. A separate gymnasium was completed behind the main building in 1924.

Just prior to World War II and throughout the war, student enrollment at first increased, then decreased sharply as the older students went to war. As the school population decreased, the strain on the school infrastructure lessened, and the improvements made in the 1920s to the Waco High School were more than adequate for the current population. Although some of the pressure from a growing school system was somewhat alleviated during these years, the board of trustees' and the superintendent of schools' anxiety over the future was likely placed elsewhere. The school years between 1938 and 1948 showed the following enrollment in the Waco public schools:
1938-1939: 2,535 students
1939-1940: 2,565 students, an all time record
1940-1941: 2,431 students, drop of 134 students from pervious year likely due to the Depression Era generation moving into the school system
1941-1942: 2,162 students
1942-1943: 1,545 students, a drop of 30 percent due to the draw of personnel to World War II as the United States entered the conflict, as well as the continuation of the Depression Era generation moving through the lower grades
1944-1945: 1,575 students, a slight increase of school attendees from families of war workers, air bases, and even students from Fort Hood
1945-1946: 1,738 students, an increase of 9 percent
1947-1948: 1,740 students, another slight increase, but numbers have not returned to pre-war levels

It would take another four or five years for the beginning of the "Baby Boom" generation to reach school age, and another decade for the school population to increase to the point where new schools were urgently needed. Anticipating this need, the board of trustees decided to build another high school near Cobb Drive and 4th Street. They also decided that a change in organization was desired. Until 1948, the superintendent of schools and the board of trustees handled the day-to-day operations of the Waco public school system, but the city council still held the purse strings and their permission was required for an increase in school tax or for a bond election. On January 10, 1948, the board of trustees wanted to make Waco an independent school district (ISD), to which the voters agreed. From that point on, the Waco ISD operated independently of any municipal or county government, with the power to control its own finances.

In the fall of 1955, the apartment building at the corner of Jefferson and North 9th Street was replaced with the music building. The devastating 1953 tornado which decimated much of the downtown appeared to have no significant impact on the high school or other schools in the area. The new suburban high school, Richfield, was built on property that was originally used as an airfield in World War I (Rich Field), which was then used as a municipal airport and then as the Heart of Texas Coliseum grounds. The board of trustees and the Heart of Texas management conducted a land swap for the property at 2020 N. 42nd Street, on which the 1961 school was built. The University High School on 2600 Bagby Ave., near the southern end of town, was completed in 1963.

The process of integration of the Waco ISD began soon after the landmark case of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education in May 1954. Until that point, the education of white and black students followed the "separate but equal" mandate of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. The board of trustees watched the 1954 case carefully, and once a decision was handed down, the board decided in June 1955 to begin the process of integrating the Waco public schools. However, they were extremely concerned that a significant portion of their funding from the State of Texas would be cut off if they integrated prior to being mandated by the state, so the board postponed the process for over a decade. Two court orders in 1963 and 1965 prompted action, and in the 1966-1967 school year grades, 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, and 10 were integrated. The following school year grades 5, 8, and 11 were added. By the 1967-1968 school year all 12 grades were integrated. The faculty was integrated at the beginning of the process, in the school year 1965-1966. Largely, the process of integration completed without controversy or violence. The last court order relating to integration was in 1971, when the students from the Carver High School in the LaVega School District were ordered to attend schools in Waco. This was the only incident of long-distance bussing of black students in the process of Waco ISD's desegregation.

By 1970, the Waco High School was showing its age, and the cost of improvements was beyond the reach of the Waco ISD. As such, board decided to build two new schools, one at on 4601 North 19th Street near McLennan Community College as a replacement for Waco High School, and the other at 500 North 2nd Street as a replacement for Moore High School. The new schools were eventually named the Waco High School and the Jefferson-Moore High School, respectively, and both were completed by August 30, 1971 at a total cost of $1,400,000 each. The new Waco High School utilized an innovative design with five separate buildings, while the Jefferson-Moore High School was constructed as one large building but with modernized facilities. The entire student population was realigned in the move from the old schools to the new.

As with the opening of the Waco High School at 815 Columbus Ave., the opening of the two new high schools was marked by a student march to the new location. The march was led by Major Robert Evans, age 80, who also led the march to the old Waco High School in 1912. As the replacement high school for Waco High School was about four miles west on the outskirts of town (at 4601 N. 19th Street), it is more likely that the students hiked to the new Jefferson-Moore High School, only about 12 blocks (roughly 1 mile) from the Columbus Avenue school.

The Waco High School campus at Columbus Ave. was officially decommissioned as a high school in 1971. The property was used by the Waco ISD from 1981 to 1987 as Metropolitan Learning Center, and from 1988 to 1991 as the Alternative High School, with Jack Henderson serving as principal. During the 1991-1992 school year, Mr. Henderson moved the alternative high school to 500 N. University Parks Ave., and the Waco ISD closed the building. In 2003, an announcement was made of a partnership with the Waco ISD to rehabilitate the old high school building into an educational center, with the Keating Group selected as the architects. A study commissioned by Waco ISD called for a plan to use 40,000 square feet of he high school building as an educational center, while the remaining 40,000 square feet would be leased to area non-profits, alumni groups, and a community center. The plan was not completed, and the building stands vacant. The property is privately-owned, and will be rehabilitated for residential use using federal preservation tax credits.