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275 Lexington Pkwy N, Saint Paul, MN 55104

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360 Colborne Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102

651-767-8100 | Get Directions

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Central History

  • A History of St. Paul Central High School

    Central High School was founded in 1866 in response to student requests. Prior to 1866, there were no educational opportunities in St. Paul beyond elementary school. About a dozen students wished to continue their schooling, so two rooms were set aside for the "High School" on the 3rd floor of the Franklin School, located at Broadway and Tenth Streets in downtown St. Paul, and the "St. Paul High School" was formed. Some people thought that the school was a waste of space.

    Eugene Foster (known as the "Father of the High School") was the principal, and Mrs. H. M. Haynes was the lone teacher.

    The first graduating class was in 1870 and consisted of two students: one boy and one girl. The girl's name was Fannie Haynes (the daughter of the teacher) and the boy's name was A. P. Warren. The first 2 diplomas were hand printed on sheepskin.

    Gradually, the classes enrolled in the Franklin building became too large for the school to accommodate them, so in 1872, the high school moved to the Lindeke Building at 7th and Jackson Street where it occupied the entire 2nd floor.

    (Franklin remained a school, and was expanded significantly before 1900. It no longer exists; the land it occupied is now part of the Interstate Freeway System).

    In 1872, the graduating class consisted of 5 boys and 7 girls. In 1873, the graduating class originated the custom of presenting each senior with a souvenir appropriate to his/her character. For several years, a prize was offered for the best essay: a Webster's Unabridged Dictionary and a holder for it. The President of the Board of Education also presented a prize to the one having the highest standing in the class, usually a fine set of Shakespeare's works.

    Graduation exercises were held in the St. Paul Civic Opera House in 1872, until it was destroyed by a fire in 1899. Then the commencement exercises were held in the People's Church, followed by the St. Paul Auditorium.

    By 1879, the teaching staff had increased to 8 teachers and a principal. The hours were from 9 to 12 in the morning and 1 to 4 in the afternoon. A 15 minute recess was offered in the morning or afternoon.

    That year the Lindeke building at 7th and Jackson was finally determined to be ill-suited for a high school. The first floor of the building was occupied by a dry goods store and a fresh fish market. In the warm weather, the aroma from the fish market rising to the second floor was nearly unbearable. To make matters worse, the building was infested with rats. A sign over one door reminded the pupils this was their "last chance for an education."

    In the School Board's annual report of 1879, it declared that although the school was a pleasing view on the outside, the atmosphere inside was "morally, socially and physically unhealthy". The rooms were noisy, ill-ventilated and sunless. This report aroused the city council to take action, and a bond-raising proposition for a new high school was made. This proposition was rejected by the voters, but it was re-made in 1881 and was passed by 3,000 votes. Work on a new high school was begun immediately. The site chosen was located at 10th and Minnesota Street.

    In 1883, this 27-room building at 10th and Minnesota Streets was completed The first enrollment of the new school was a total of 233 students.

    In 1888, a 14-room annex was added for laboratories. but there was no money for an astronomical observatory. The Debate society decided to put on plays to make up the money to pay for it. Soon, Central was known as the only high school in the United States to have a fixed telescope with a telescopic glass polished by the late Alvan Clark. The school was named "Central High School" in 1888.

    Mechanics Arts High School, then known as Manual Training High School, was first housed in the basement of Central.

    After the new high school at Lexington and Marshall was built, this building became the site of the "new" Madison Elementary School (replacing the old one), operating from 1912-1929.

    Soon the building on 10th and Minnesota Street became too small, and the corner of Lexington and Marshall Avenues was chosen as the new site.

    Lexington/Marshall building:
    Working name: West End High School
    Proposed name: Lexington High School
    Final name: Central High School
    Architect: Clarence H Johnston, Sr. - prominent St. Paul architect, studied architecture in St. Paul as well as MIT, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, travelled Europe and Asia. Also designed houses for Summit Ave, buildings for the University of Minn, many others.
    Architectural Artist: JC Trott (employed by the architect)
    Style: Collegiate Gothic
    Land purchased: 1909
    Designed: 1909-1910
    Building Permit Issued: May 31, 1910
    Builder: C. Ash Company
    Construction started: 1910
    Ready for occupancy: 1911 (old school dropped from City Directory)
    Cornerstone laid: April, 1912 (building completed)
    Flagpole installed: 1914
    New gymnasium: 1924
    Stadium: 1943
    Cost for 1909-1943: $650,000 (not counting maintenance, heating, etc)

    It was at first thought appropriate to rename the school "Lexington", however during the week before the laying of the cornerstone, the alumni prevailed upon the Board to keep the name "Central". Around this time, the Minuteman was adopted as the school's logo, based on the name of the colonial militia of the 1770's, who fought the first battle of independence of the American Colonies at Lexington, Massachusetts - apparently as a compromise with those who wished the school to be named "Lexington"..

    The school at Marshall and Lexington cost about $650,000 to build. The property was acquired for $40,000 (1909 and 1938), and was built for $450,000, with additions costing $110,000 (1924) and $50,000 (stadium, 1943)..

    The original building was designed for 1,500 students, and was expanded in 1924 to accomodate a larger student population. The expansion consisted of a new gymnasium attached to the west side of the school, next to the parking lot and public tennis courts. One of the doorways to the new gym said "Girls" carved in stone above the entrance, as can be seen in a 1925 Central yearbook. The old gym was located above the auditorium (in the center of the open square), and converted to other use. 

    By 1936, Central had a student body of approximately 2900 students.

    To get to and from the school in the 1910's through the early 1950's, students either walked, were driven by their parents, drove their own cars (in some cases), or took the streetcar.

    Electric streetcars, the main form of public transportation from the 1890’s through the early 1950's, were important for the largely scattered student body. There were many streetcar lines available including: University, Rondo-Maria, Selby-Lake, Grand, St. Clair-Payne, Randolph, and Snelling Ave lines, all established between 1890 and 1915. During the early 1950's, buses replaced the streetcars, and student buses were also utilized by the school (using yellow school buses and regular city buses) to transport students to and from their neighborhoods. A few students drove their own cars, but most walked or used buses in the 1950's.

    In 1957, Highland Park Junior High School opened, drawing many students for their 9th grade, rather than to Central as freshmen. However, this has happened at least once before: Maria Sanford Junior High School (later renamed to Ramsey Elementary School) drew 9th graders from the Macalester/Groveland area in the 1920s and 1930s before being converted to a grade school.

    In 1964, Highland Park Senior High School opened, drawing many high school students from the west and south of Central.

    In 1970, 2 teachers started the Quest program to offer in-depth topics in the humanities not available in general survey classes. Classes were offered in topics such as Ancient Civilizations, Shakespeare, and American Indian Studies.

    From 1977-1981, Central underwent a dramatic remodeling project costing about $16 according to the SPPS [See note 1] According to a September 1980 St. Paul newspaper article by Roger Fuller, the school was remodeled and expanded to add special educational programs and make it the city's first "magnet high school" (students from anywhere in the city could enroll) to solve an integration problem, where 33% of the students were minorities in violation of state guidelines limiting minority enrollment to 30%. By attracting non-minorities to the new magnet school, minority enrollment would decrease as a percentage, and the school would meet state guidelines. A swimming pool was added in the basement area, an additional floor (called the 5th floor) was added on top, and a number of educational programs were added to the curriculum..

    It was originally planned to have the students move from the building for a year so that the construction could take place without disturbances. However, the vocal members of the community would not permit “the St. Paul School” to be vacant for even one year, so other plans needed to be made. The schedule was changed so that school started at 7am and ended by noon when the workers arrived. In May of 1980, 5 fires occurred in one week, damaging mainly the 5th floor, and delaying construction by 2 months. .

    By September 1st, 1980, the new sections of the school were ready for occupancy, most of the remodeling project was complete, and the castle-like, “school on the hill” was no longer recognizable, looking more like a common parking ramp with no remaining character. The interior of the school was also greatly changed, except that the auditorium offers a glimmer of familiarity with the former school. The school opened with students from all around the city interested in the vast amount of educational programs. Areas such as dance, music recording, auto repair and a wide range of foreign languages, were not available in many other places in the city or the surrounding suburbs

    Scholarships
    Between 1902 and 1955, Central graduated 11 Rhodes Scholars - more than any other public school in the United States.

    Between the years 1995 and 2000, Central graduated more National Merit Scholars and Finalists than any other Minnesota school.

    Anniversaries and Miscellaneous Facts

    • Central is the oldest continuously-operating high school in Minnesota.
    • It is the only 5-story school in the state.
    • Central "the institution" celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1966, and in 2006 was 140 years old.
    • The current school at Marshall and Lexington will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2012.

    CHS Building Summary

    1. 1866: Franklin School, 3rd floor, Broadway and Tenth.
    2. 1872: Lindeke Building, 2nd floor, 7th and Jackson.
    3. 1883: 10th and Minnesota. Expanded in 1888.
    4. 1912: Lexington and Marshall.
    5. 1980: Lexington and Marshall. Gutted, completely remodeled and expanded.

    Note: 1: $27 million based on building permits issued from 1977-1981 if an $11 million permit was not later canceled. 2 permits for $11 million were issued 1 month apart to 2 different construction companies in 1977, making it appear that one was possibly canceled and the other one used. If so, the cost was $16 million for the remodeling project as stated by spps.


    Many thanks to Dave Morton, Class of 1961 for the countless hours of research to check and revise the information presented here.

  • The First 150 years of Central High School

    by Written by Elizabeth Lorenz-Meyer, Nancy O’Brien Wagner Bluestem Heritage Group

     To celebrate the 150th year of Central High School, the Transforming Central History group hired a company to research and assemble the history of the school. This is the document they put togehter.

    CHS history 8.22.16 PDF.pdf 15.80 MB (Last Modified on September 25, 2016)
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