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Borderlands: El Paso High School Remains Classic 20 (2001-2002)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

El Paso High School Remains Classic

Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)

By Marie Quintana, Lorraine Palacios and Eric Fumagalli

High on a hill, it is visible from I-10: a beautiful example of classic Greco-Roman design. It's not a capitol building, not a government agency. It's El Paso High School. "Lady of the Hill," as it is often called, is a school with a long history that takes us back to the city's early days.


Image caption: El Paso High School, showing columns, capitals and other Greco-Roman features. Photo by Danny Martinez

El Paso's first high school opened in September 1885 on the second floor of Central School on the corner of Campbell and Myrtle Streets, with Emma Seabaugh serving as principal. Calvin Esterly, El Paso's first school superintendent, taught higher mathematics and Fannie Echols taught English and Latin. By 1888 the high school had ninth through eleventh grades. When Central School became overcrowded, plans for a separate building for high school students were made.

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In 1902, a high school building consisting of 12 rooms and an auditorium that seated 300 people was built on the corner of Kansas and Arizona Streets. Simply called "High School," it could not keep up with the demands of the population boom either and soon also became overcrowded.

In 1909, Superintendent F. M. Martin requested a new building in his annual report, but it wasn't until 1912 that the city purchased a four-block site for the building of the new school. The school was to be in an area bounded by Cliff, Virginia and Schuster Streets.

In 1914, the well-known architectural firm of Trost and Trost won the contract to build El Paso High School. Brothers Henry C. Trost and Gustavus Trost traveled the country studying high school buildings. In the early 1900s, these structures began to be dominant buildings and accommodated classrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums, labs, offices and other facilities under one roof. They were built to serve large numbers of students, and their designs featured effective ventilation and high levels of light.

According to librarian Mary Sarber, Henry Trost "always looked at the location, the terrain that the building was going to be on, what was around it, and tried to fit the building into that setting." The high school was erected in the form of an "L" and appears to be part of the hillside on which it is built.

The Greco-Roman features of El Paso High made it a unique landmark in town. Built of reinforced concrete and brick, the high school cost about $500,000 to build in 1916. On September 18, 1916, El Paso High School opened its four-floor architectural marvel under one roof at 800 E. Schuster. This school was one of the most elegant of Trost's works anywhere.

Located at the foot of the Franklin Mountains, El Paso High School stands on top of a mesa and overlooks the city. Semicircular steps lead up to the main entrance to the school built of fireproof concrete and tile. At the top of the steps are six terra cotta pillars supporting a pediment and entablature bearing the name "El Paso High School."

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On each side of the steps are brick and terra cotta-trimmed bases, holding cast-iron candelabra. Above the front doors a bronze tablet bears these words: "'A Cultivated Mind is the Genius of Democracy: It is the Only Dictator that Free Men Acknowledge and the Only Security that Free Men Desire' -- Mirbeau B. Lamar." Such architectural details were ultimately what made the high school pleasing to behold.

The inside of the school with its marble floors is as elegant as the outside. Inside the front entrance, the hallway that circles the rear of the large auditorium has coffered low ceilings and classical columns. The main corridor floor was of marble; the other hall floors were of quarter-sawed oak; and the classroom floors were made of hard maple. Most of the toilet and shower rooms were finished in tile, marble and porcelain.

The ground floor is below street level. The second floor is at street level, and its two perpendicular wings connect at a 45-degree angle with a heavily decorated Corinthian porch or pavilion. This overlooks Jones Stadium, named after the first Assistant Principal of El Paso High School, R. Randolph Jones, a compassionate person who cared for his students and knew them all by name. The stadium, seating 12,000, was one of the first major concrete stadiums built in the country.

El Paso High School was also a place for higher learning. The College of the City of El Paso had held classes there for several years until it merged with the School of Mines. In 1920, the El Paso Junior College started holding classes on the fourth floor of the school, and at one time had more students enrolled and attending than did the School of Mines, now UTEP.

Another big change happened in El Paso that affected El Paso High School. With Ku Klux Klan members being elected to the school board in 1922, the names of the schools in El Paso were changed to honor Texas heroes. El Paso High became Sam Houston High School but was changed back after a year because of strong community protest. In February 1923, the KKK was defeated in the local polls and their presence in El Paso soon died out.

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In May 1922, students only needed 16 units of credit to graduate, but by September that number had changed to 20. El Paso High offered the first music classes in the state and it was also the first to include a modern language, Spanish, in its course of study.

El Paso High School was also the first in the state to have a student military corps, organized by Superintendent of Schools Esterly, a West Point graduate. All boys purchased their own uniform and as a reward for their hard work, they were taken to Austin for the dedication of the capitol.

In 1984, Principal Luis C. Cortes, himself a graduate of El Paso High, began plans to establish a museum located on the bottom floor of the school. Because many valuable mementos of El Paso High's past sat in boxes or were scattered all over the school, Cortes decided something needed to be done to preserve the school's history. With the help of his students, Cortes established "The El Paso High School Historical Society" on August 2, 1985. Many El Paso High alumni were present to celebrate this occasion, including several graduates of 1917, the first year the current school produced graduates.

On August 22, 1986, the EPHS Historical Museum was inaugurated. At the museum, the public may view copies of The Spur, EPHS's yearbook, dating back to the 1920's, as well as read issues of the school newspaper, the Tatler. Trophies, awards, photographs, and sports equipment are just some of the highlights of this museum.

Over the years, El Paso High School has added space, but the unique details of the original structure still fascinate architecture and history buffs. Today, El Paso High School remains one of the most historical and charming buildings in El Paso.

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