Big events usually begin with the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner”.
Nearly 100 years ago, however, the song came at the end of a Friday night ribbon-cutting ceremony for Austin’s new high school building in its auditorium (now Christgau Hall).
This song closed the Dec. 9, 1921 celebration by the community that overwhelmingly supported the construction of the nearly $1 million neo-Gothic edifice – nearly $14.8 million in today’s dollars. – for students from 7th to 12th grade. The Minneapolis Morning Tribune called it the “third largest high school in the United States” with 275 rooms; an auditorium for approximately 1,200 seats; a state-of-the-art swimming pool; a gym; a large cafeteria; and a library with a fireplace.
After two years of hard work, Austin put itself on the map as a community that values education.
On Saturday, April 23, the Austin High School Alumni & Friends Association will join the Austin Public Education Foundation in hosting an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the “old part” of the high school. This event is focused on the 100th anniversary of Austin High’s North End opening for its first school year.
This free open house will offer tours of the school, a film in the Knowlton Auditorium about the school’s history, other activities and cookies.
Dr. J. M. McConnell, Minnesota State Commissioner of Education, spoke at the dedication in December 1921.
That morning, after an American flag was hoisted on the school’s new steel flagpole, students attended a day of classes before the building – more commonly known as Central High School – was swept away. open for visitors to walk around and “marvel at the progress made on their childhood ‘Little Red Schoolhouse,'” wrote the Mower County News.
More than 2,000 people – the city had 10,000 – passed by the school that afternoon for their “first glimpse of the beautiful new structure that will be the mecca of Austin’s youth education and of Mower County for many years to come.
Crowded classes lead to the project
In February 1919, the Austin School Board unanimously decided that a new high school building should be constructed “as soon as possible to relieve congestion,” reports the Mower County Transcript-Republican.
Austin was ending a decade that saw it grow 45%; overall, the district had 72 more students than a year earlier.
District officials conducted a “thorough investigation of the overcrowded state” of schools, specifically Franklin School, then the high school in the southern half of where Austin High now stands.
“All the schools in the city are overcrowded,” the February 12, 1919, article said. .
Four months later, voters approved a bond issue not exceeding $450,000 by an overwhelming vote of 726 to 75 in a special election on Saturday that did not attract as large a turnout as expected. .
GL Lockhart, a St. Paul architect and engineer who wrote a 1918 book on building public schools, was chosen to design it.
District officials made room for the new school by razing the three-story Washington Elementary School, which was only 12 years old but had poor heating and was in disrepair. Some houses have also been removed.
Demolition began in October 1919. In July 1920 authorities laid the foundation stone, a “large block of Bedford cut stone, inscribed AD 1920”.
‘Second to none’
When the school opened on September 12, 1921, the News called it “unparalleled in Minnesota.”
“It is not only one of the biggest, but also one of the best from an architectural point of view,” writes the News.
Local and regional newspapers differed in the total cost of the school. Enrollments ranged from “well over half a million” to a “million dollar school” to $1,125,000 to $1,250,000.
The auditorium (Christgau Hall) boasted a ground floor, a large balcony spanning three sides and a stage “unusually large and providing ample space for the many high school productions” . Plans for the auditorium also included hosting student assemblies, mass meetings, and other community functions.
In the 1922 Austinian, the auditorium was called “a beautiful hall, artistically lit, fully equipped to the smallest detail. It is the ideal place for general assembly and entertainment. The stage is very large and the sets and scenery varied and beautiful. A Steinway grand piano is the crowning glory of the auditorium.
On the first floor, the halls were primarily for science, including physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, general science, and agriculture. It also had rooms for manual arts, such as manual training and studio work, and the business department for typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and other subjects.
A large conservatory on the south side was available for courses in botany and agriculture.
Older students occupied the second floor, middle school students were on the third floor, both using the first floor for science and vocational subjects. The second and third floors had two study rooms for 80 students.
One swimming pool – 90ft by 22ft – was “one of the largest in the state” and ranged from 4 to 8ft deep. Its water has been purified by the “best of modern systems, known as the ultraviolet ray method”.
The gymnasium floor (where the library now stands) was not finished, and the basement cafeteria was not ready for use during the 1921–22 school year. Part of the west wing of the building was left open for a possible junior college.
Also, the library opened the following school year with a fireplace, tables, chairs and 200 volumes of books.