“Austin Askew”–Chapter XVII– The School That Wouldn’t Sit Still

I like to collect old postcards. I find them a fairly inexpensive and interesting way to connect with the past, and see what things used to look like. It’s endlessly fascinating for me to see how beautiful our towns and cities used to be before every other building was a sheet metal, A-frame, prefab.

Old postcards have also clued me in on aspects of the past I might not have learned about as quickly, if at all.

Several years ago I bought a postcard bearing the caption, “High School, Austin, Texas,” I knew the building that now houses the Austin Community College Rio Grande campus used to be the old high school, but this building didn’t look like it: the brickwork and fenestration were different, and it was topped with a dome.

Later I bought another card postmarked 1904 that also depicted an “Austin High School.” This building had curved walls and a dome. Then I bought cards of the building on Rio Grande. One was called “Austin High School,” though I could see where a caption identifying it as the junior high had been printed over with a design. The other card depicted a smaller version of the Rio Grande building, labeling it also as the junior high. I decided to do some prying.

As I discussed several weeks ago, for years Austin’s only public school was an elementary, now known as Pease. Eventually high school level classes were held in one room of this building, and when the pupils outgrew that classes were moved to nearby private residences and other buildings, before finally getting moved into the old Temporary Capitol on Congress Avenue.

Adolescence as a distinct period and phase of life was not recognized as such until the twentieth century. Prior to that time you were considered either a child or an adult. You left home early and looked for work, and you married at an age that only Jerry Lee Lewis would consider appropriate today.

But as towns and cities in Texas got larger and more settled and prosperous, the inhabitants didn’t have to spend all their time on mere survival. They had leisure time available, and parents began wondering if perhaps their children might ought to look into careers other than farming and shop-keeping, careers that required more than a basic education. Of course the teenagers in those days had as much leisure as their parents, which they frittered away buying thirty-inch  rims for their buggies and text-messaging one another over the telegraph. So the public clamor for education for the older kids seemed to get louder the more idle and underfoot those kids became.

A site for a new high school was finally picked in 1899, on the block bordered by Trinity, Neches, Ninth, and Tenth. This was one of the original public squares that had been designated when Edwin Waller laid out the town in 1839.

The cornerstone for the Austin High School building was laid on January 26, 1900, to the accompaniment of music and speeches. By April 21–San Jacinto Day–the dome of the structure had been completed, and a bricklayer and contractor named L. E. Ledbetter raised the Texas flag on the pole atop it.

The first students to attend AHS were divided into five peculiarly-named classes: there were 28 seniors, 22 “high middle-class,” 29 “low middle-class,” 45 “high juniors,” and 80 “low juniors.”

There seems to be some difference of opinion as to who designed the school. One source says it was the firm of Endress and Walsh, while another states it was Burt McDonald and James Reily. My semi-educated guess, though, is that it was the work of Texas courthouse architect James Riely Gordon, and indeed, the old AHS looked more like a courthouse than anything.

The original block of the four-story brick, plaster, and timber school was shaped like a clover leaf, with rounded walls, and was centered around a domed rotunda. The second and third floor of the rotunda were devoted to the auditorium, while the rest of the building consisted of offices and classrooms. But the building was renovated and expanded in 1912, 1916, 1929, 1937-1939, and 1949-1951, until it took on the shape of a capital “T.” Gyms, a library, band hall, music room, lunch room, labs, vocation education rooms, and other classrooms and offices were located in these wings.

By 1915, however, this relatively new school was overcrowded, and land was set aside on Rio Grande between Twelfth and Thirteenth for the construction of another school. A referendum was held to determine whether the new school should be a junior high, a high school, or a high school for girls, and the voters decided they wanted a junior high. The new school was named after John T. Allan (1821-1888), who had donated a good deal of money to the Austin schools for the creation of industrial education courses, thus insuring that generations and generation of children would graduate school with missing digits.

Initially, only the wing that faces Rio Grande was constructed, and it was still being worked on when Allan was opened to students in 1916. But by 1925 the building had expanded to the squared “8″ configuration it has today, and Austin’s school administrators decided to flip-flop Allan and AHS, making the newer building the high school, and the older building Allan Junior High. This switch took place either over the Thanksgiving holidays in 1925, or on January 1, 1926, depending on which source you consult. (The high school didn’t officially change its name to “Stephen F. Austin High School” until 1953.)

By the late 1940s, Allan was falling apart. Walls were cracked, ceilings were sagging, and the stuffing was coming out of the seats in the auditorium. It had been renovated and expanded many times, but its enrollment kept growing, as did the number of classes it offered. The 1949-1951 renovations seemed to help a little bit, but the wear and tear soon proved to be too great.

On the night of March 21, 1956, a young couple were coming back from a date when they noticed a “peculiar orange glow” coming from the building, and called the Fire Department, which arrived within five minutes. Twenty minutes later flames were leaping 100 feet into the air.

Almost the entire Austin Fire Department fought the blaze. One fireman was injured by flying glass, and two got trapped on the gym roof, but escaped on a ladder right before the roof collapsed. The fire, which caused a half-million dollars in damage, was the largest in Austin’s history since the Old Capitol burned in 1881. There were about 2,000 onlookers at the scene, many of them Allan Junior High students and teachers, who watched the spectacle while crying and singing the school song, “Allan High, Our Allan.”

Two days later the students of Allan were transferred to University Junior High (the old UT Education Department model school). UJH students attended classes in the morning, while the Allan students attended in the afternoon. Amazingly enough, this transfer went off smoothly and efficiently, which says a lot about the students and teachers in those days.

The old 44-classroom Allan Junior High building was pretty much a total loss. The contents of the cornerstone were saved, however, and included newspapers, copies of School Board minutes, and a list of rules, which included a ban on tobacco on school premises, and a warning that students were “to refrain from throwing stones, pebbles, or anything to which danger is attached.”

In September 1957, the students and faculty of Allan moved into new quarters–a modern 106,466 square foot steel and concrete structure at 4900 Gonzalez. In 1962, Allan became a two-year junior high.

In my research, I came across a copy of the September 1974 “Bulldog Write-On” newspaper, which I found most instructive. In addition to the usual announcements about classes and teams and organizations, there is a brief history of the school, a detailed horoscope, and a blind item column called “The Shadow,” which in this issue describes an 8th grade boy who has been following a female classmate who has 6th period Gym and D lunch. Now you people may disagree with me, but I don’t think stalking should be taught in the public schools–it is something parents have a duty to teach their children at home.

There’s quite a few song dedications: “Show and Tell,” “Pillow Talk,” “Come and Get Your Love,” “Feel Like Making Love,” “Behind Closed Doors,” “Let’s Get It On,” “Having My Baby,” and not surprisingly, “Why Me, Lord.” (Wow, I was only in 5th grade in September 1974. It looks like I missed out on all the fun by just a couple years.)

In answer to the question, “What do you like about Allan?,” Tommy S. says, “I like the food and the girls.” Wendell W. says, “The main thing I like about Allan is the women, even though they aren’t too hot. I’m just going to be thankful for what they’ve got.” (Better keep your expectations low there, Wendell.) Kim says, “What I like about Allan is the boys and the band.” And Theresa A, says, “I like everything, especially the guys and the girls.” (Hmm. Theresa, would you e-mail me?)

The most useful thing in the paper is the movie review:

“If you like monkeys or apes and people, the Journalism class recommends the shows ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘The Godfather.’ ‘Planet of the Apes’ is liked by many of the students at Allan Junior High and ‘The Godfather’ is enjoyed by some students and teachers.”

Hey, laugh if you will, but at least the reviewer didn’t blow important plot twists in the piece, or bore us crowing about all the obscure indie films he’s seen lately, which is more than I can say for most of the film critics out there nowadays.

In 1980 John T. Allan changed one last time, into an elementary school. The former site of Allan Junior High downtown is now occupied by the First Baptist Church. But from now on, if you ever see old postcards of the Austin skyline, you’ll know that the other domed building downtown was Allan.

—December 8, 2005

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