The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1982, Volume 28, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor
SPECIAL ISSUE: San Diego High School, 1882-1982

By Richard George Wheeler

Images from the article

THE HISTORY of San Diego High School—its birth, growth and maturity—is romantically reflected in events recorded in the San Diego Union newspaper. In light of the current celebration of the 100th birthday of the school, fondly nicknamed “Hilltop School,” the following reflections attempt to trace the development of this popular local school.

On May 15, 1881, the “New San Diego School District,” was formed and a $12,000 bond issue was approved by the community to finance a new school. It proposed to erect a building costing $15,000. The necessary lumber amounting to $5,000 was to be donated by the Honorable Joseph Russ of Humboldt, California. Mr. Russ owned extensive forest interests that supplied lumber for his San Diego company. In addition to the lumber, he later donated all doors and windows for the new school.

The eight-room, two-story, yellow, frame building topped by an imposing cupola, with arched windows and impressive main entrance, was erected on a site overlooking the city. It received its first students on August 15, 1882, and was formally dedicated as the Russ School, in honor of Mr. Joseph Russ.

In 1888 a gymnasium was erected on the west end of the campus. It was considered by many to be a very handsome building. Soon afterwards, however, the demand for more schools in San Diego became so great that the gym was literally uprooted, transported to University Heights, and turned into a grammar school.

In 1893 the Russ School was given over to high school classes completely. Another building was added in 1898 to serve the growing enrollment and in 1905 it was decided to build a completely new high school building on the site.

The old Russ School, which had been the pride of the city for a quarter of a century was moved back into “the canyon,” the site of the future stadium, to make room for the new high school. The abandoned old Russ, as if disgusted with its neglect, burned to the ground in 1911.

Work on the new San Diego High School started in 1906 with an expenditure of $185,000. The architect was F.S. Allen of Pasadena. The two-story high school had a symmetrical design with two turret-like structures three stories in height flanking the main entrance. The main doorways and the adjoining woodwork were Gothic in character. One of the features of this building was the interior patio. The entire building was masonry construction veneered in native cut stones. It truly resembled a castle, whence it derived the name of “Gray Castle.” This building was known as the 100 Building and bore the letters SDHC at the top over the entrance. It became the center of the school, containing general offices, counseling offices and general classrooms for business education and social studies.

The year 1912 marked the greatest activity in high school construction when on December 19 the cornerstone of the home economics, fine arts and technical buildings, financed by a $200,000 bond issue was laid. All of these structures were of masonry construction veneered in the same cut stone as the main 100 Building. The “castle” styling was followed in the design of these structures. In 1914 the stadium was built after the city passed a bond issue for $145,000. In 1922 and 1923 the boys’ and girls’ gymnasium was erected. This gymnasium was of concrete construction with no stone veneer.

In 1926, the Russ Auditorium, seating 2500, was erected at a cost of $300,000. This structure repeated the “Castle” styling but in a somewhat more contemporary character. It also was a masonry structure with stone veneering on the exterior walls.

During the latter part of the 1960s, legislation was enforced by the state known as the Field Act. This state law made it necessary for all school districts to demolish any school building built prior to 1933. It came about due to the Long Beach earthquake and other related earthquake activity in the state of California. Subsequently, all San Diego High School buildings on the site had to be replaced by June 30, 1975. In September, 1970, the firm of Richard George Wheeler and Associates was retained by the San Diego Unified School District to design the new high school.

The first step in the design was to evaluate seven sites for the rebuilding of the school. This included the evaluation of the existing site, too. The following sites were selected for evaluation:

1. Existing Site
2. Morley Field Site
3. Florida Canyon Site
4. Golden Hill Site
5. 12th and Market Site
6. 19th and B Street Site
7. Mission Valley Site (West of Stadium)

The evaluations included the following studies:

1. How well does site relate to the General Plan of San Diego.
2. How well does site relate to the development of Balboa Park.
3. Access, travel time, business service, parking, etc.
4. How far is each site from responding fire vehicles.
5. Site characteristics and environment.
6. How seriously does noise affect the value of the site.
7. Vandalism exposure problems.

The existing site was evaluated as the best site relative to the above analysis. During the years of 1971 and 1972 the drawings for a new high school were developed.

The First Phase—demolition of the cafeteria and the Russ Auditorium began in the latter part of 1973. The Second Phase—construction of the four main buildings began in September, 1974, and consisted of the following buildings:

1. Administration and Classroom Building
2. Media Center, Services and Central Supply Building
3. Performing and Fine Arts Building
4. Gymnasium, Shower and Locker Facilities Building.

Because the school had to remain operational while demolition of the Cafeteria and Russ Auditorium occurred, and while construction of the Fine Arts building and the Administration and Classroom buildings was taking place, the design concept was somewhat controlled by the fact that the remaining buildings set the design characteristics. When the four main buildings were completed and ready for students, the remaining old buildings were demolished and the final phase of construction was started in February, 1977. The total site and school buildings were complete and occupied by September, 1977. The four new buildings contained 149,556 square feet and the total cost of the new high school was $6,200,000.

Concerning the design of the new school, two factors had a strong influence on the final results—Vandalism and Energy Conservation. These two considerations dictated the small use of glass areas.

We, as architects, wanted the buildings to make a strong statement in massing and character, as the old school did. All buildings are constructed of concrete masonry, rough-in texture along with some exposed concrete in balconies, lintels and base elements. The Main Administration building with classrooms was placed on a very powerful pedestal base that is seen from Park Boulevard and Russ Street.

Three buildings—Administration, Media Center and Fine Arts – were grouped around a courtyard to enhance student and lunch activities. The old fountains, donated by various classes, were saved and placed near the center of this area. Trees planted by various classes over the years were also an important part of this courtyard. The gymnasium was placed at an upper level, to the rear of the Media Center and adjoining the athletic fields.

Fig vines were planted in concrete blocks in the walkways. Today, one can see the vines as they start to cover the buildings, following a tradition going all the way back to the original old school. To Miss Kate Sessions, San Diego’s well-known horticulturist, the school is indebted for its climbing figs. In 1884-1885, Miss Sessions, who was then principal, planted the first vine. We hope the new vines will continue the tradition.

THE PHOTOGRAPH on page 90 is courtesy of the San Diego High School Alumni Association. The modern photograph of San Diego High School is by John Cash.