By the time Fresno’s first high school graduating class took the stage at the old Barton Opera House in 1891, the seven students were well-schooled in English, science, history, math and four years of Latin.
They left behind three teachers and a principal — T.L. Heaton, who was also superintendent of Fresno City Schools.
But what they didn’t have was a school building. The original Fresno High School was a concept, not a place. It began 1889 on the second story of the old K Street School (later Emerson Elementary). A crumbling ceiling sent the teens to the Congregational Church, and later to a commercial building with a store and a bathhouse.
They moved temporarily to the Central School, also called White School, where Memorial Auditorium stands today. And finally, in 1896, Fresno’s first high school opened its doors.
The school was built on a city block bought for $7,750 on O Street, between Tuolumne and Stanislaus streets. There were complaints that it was too far out of town.
But it was a sight to behold. The grand, three-story brick and concrete structure, imposing in the classic Romanesque/Renaissance Revival style, must have made quite a statement.
It was finished at a cost of $53,000, with a capacity of 400 students. Its signature clock tower, which had ornate turrets, stood four stories over the campus. The school featured a library, chemistry lab, gymnasium and a lecture hall, which also served as a theater.
“We have one of the best high school buildings in the state,” Heaton said upon its completion. The planning of the building was said to have been almost entirely his work.
Even with additions between 1910 and 1917, the school became overcrowded. This wasn’t too surprising since it shared space with Fresno Junior College starting in 1910, and Fresno Normal School, later Fresno State College, in 1911.
Soon it was time for a new campus for just the high school, and a classically designed million-dollar school opened in 1921 on Echo Avenue, where it remains today.
The old O Street campus became Fresno Technical High, with classes still held by Fresno Junior College. The building was eventually condemned as a “firetrap,” abandoned in 1952 and demolished a year later. A car dealership, Frontier Chevrolet, moved to the site in 1961.
Today the location is home to Cesar E. Chavez Adult Education Center. The section of O Street that the old building faced is now the parking lot.