WHS: Growing Pains

by Dick P. Morrison, WHS Educator


1900, the turn of the century.  The Midway area of St. Paul was becoming more than just the "edge of town."  About this time, the founding fathers of Hamline University decided to buy several acres of farmland and build what they expected would become a major educational institution.  They purposely chose a northern point near the Midway area so there would be plenty of room for expansion.


It was a growing community.  To the immediate south, several roads already had been named, and there were an ever increasing number of shops, lumber and millwork companies, dwellings, and even a few wood sidewalks being built.  Minnehaha and Hamline avenues - even Snelling Avenue - had wood sidewalks skirting one side.  University Avenue was a graded gravel road; Thomas Avenue was ungraded.


The tract bordered by Snelling, Minnehaha, Lexington and Thomas avenues was prairie land where Water House and Peck dairies pastured their cows.  The area was treeless except around the Home of the Good Shepherd-from Hamline Avenue, one could see all the way to Dale Street.


Between 1900 and 1920, the Midway neighborhood quickly filled with family dwellings.  Within this 20-year period, an important community developed.  A high school and a number of grade schools now served the area; however, a junior high school still seemed to be needed.


The city block bordered by Albert, Blair, Lafond, and Pascal streets was partially vacant, containing just 16 houses and 10 garages, and seemed a logical place for a new junior high school.  Condemnation proceedings were initiated:  houses were sold or moved.  The total net cost of the property to the St. Paul Public School Board was $76,825.39-a startling figure in relation to today's real estate prices.


Construction of a new junior high school began in 1924 and was completed by the time classes started in the fall of 1925.  The building held 875 students and cost $360,091.96.


Two interesting facts are part of this beginning:  The floor plans for Wilson and Marshall high schools are identical;  and the original blueprints show the plans under the name of Hamline Junior High School with the name Hamline scratched out and Wilson written above it.


By 1938, barely 12 school years later, demographic studies indicated the need for a second senior high school.  Also, the six-year, three-year, three-year schedule for elementary, junior high and senior high students had lost popularity in many educational circles.  Wilson opened in 1938 as a high school with a four-year program, freshmen through seniors. Wilson students who had expected to go to Central in the fall found themselves back at Wilson.  The first four-year-only class entered in 1940 and graduated in 1944.  Several times money was raised and allocated to remove the lintel proclaiming the building a junior high.  To this day, the lintel remains!


The transition from a junior high school to a senior high school was simply accomplished.  Most of the teachers stayed on;  room assignments were given befitting certain subjects and befitting the high school curriculum.


Little was done to the physical plant, and for years this has been noted by countless ex-students reminiscing at the reunions.  Many recall the size of the gym and the fact that it had to serve boys and girls separately.  Others remember the height of lavatory mirrors, the small lockers, and some of the room sizes, especially for band and choir.  The auditorium could never fit the entire student body at one time, and there were years when even three assemblies had to be held.


For many years, the wall between the auditorium stage and the gymnasium was made of wood slats and was removed for large stage productions.  By the late 1940s, this wall was replaced by brick with only an odd-sized door as an entry into the gym.  Many a senior on Senior Honor Day had to duck through this opening while parading into the front rows of the auditorium.


A study proposed that the building should become a junior high again by 1952 or 1954.  This proposal was shelved, and in 1955 more than $100,000 was spent to rehabilitate and remodel the structure.  Heating systems were updated, a band and choir room was created out of the old coal room, new locker and shower areas were built, new divider walls were erected, and everything was painted.  The high school had been given a facelift, reminding students and faculty that there were a few years left in the old girl yet.


It was not until 1964 that Wilson returned to junior high status, 26 years after becoming a high school.  Some of the faculty remained, but the majority went to other high schools in the city system. 


In preparation for the change, reconstruction and repair of the building began immediately. Many new rooms, reference and study areas, and meeting facilities had to be created within the confines of the old building.  To former students and faculty members who visit there today, just a hint of the old school can be seen-faculty rooms have been redesigned, some large rooms now are divided into many small rooms, window spaces have been bricked in, and solid doors have replaced those with windowpanes.  The playground is smaller, making way for faculty off-street parking.


By the late 1970s, studies indicated that the building probably had outlived its usefulness and should be condemned, perhaps even demolished and some new type of community building constructed on the space.  Once this information became public knowledge, a number of civic-minded groups and deeply interested neighbors became involved in dialogues with Independent School Board 625.  These groups argued that the building had many good years left, and with some repairs and paint it could continue its usefulness to the community.  This sentiment won over opponents, and although Wilson as a junior high ended in the spring of 1981, it opened its doors once again in the fall as a new type of school.  Using a more "traditional" approach to education, the Benjamin E. Mays Fundamental School serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade.  Specific assignments, definite homework, discipline, dress codes, and polite speech are the essentials of the fundamental school.


As to the building, it recently acquired a colorful paint job with interesting patterns.


One student, a member of the Class of 1944, returned to the school as a faculty member at the invitation of his former speech teacher, Grace Mackey, and his principal, Russell Peterson.  That student, Dick P. Morrison, remained there for 17 years, leaving in 1964 when the school reverted to a junior high.