The Short and Flawed Life of Visalia High
From the outside, the new Visalia High School building was a real beauty. Its architecture and the park setting in which it was located seemed to make the institution an impressive asset for the town. But outward appearances can be deceiving, and little did anyone realize that the two-story brick building was a deathtrap. So how did this happen?
The tragic life of the Visalia High School really had its start with the previous school. Built in 1891 on the northwest corner of Locust and Oak Streets, the public school known as the Tipton Lindsey School provided education to all grades from grammar through high school. As the number of students increased, so did the need for more space.
School officials began to consider building a separate structure only for high schoolers. But economically, times were tough during the early to mid-1890s, so finding the funds was a challenge. In 1896, the Visalia Common Council (now called City Council) decided a bond measure was the answer. On April 24, 1896, a successful special election gave city officials the $10,000 they requested.
So with the money approved, plans for the new high school moved forward. Local architect Arthur E. Saunders drew up the building plans and Hanford contractors Sharples & Lindgren were chosen to build. A completion date of Oct. 15, 1896 was set.
The location for the high school was an important consideration for city officials, so they selected the oval shaped park at the north end of Court Street. As it was the main entrance to town from the north, they believed a nice new building would be a pleasant view for visitors. Before construction began, city officials and Saunders actually walked the park grounds and identified the exact location for the placement of the building. They wanted the school to be in perfect alignment with Court Street, allowing it to be clearly seen from Main Street.
Construction began in July, and the crowded high school students at Tipton Lindsey shared their excitement and anticipation. They wrote, “But we can endure this for a short time considering the fact that we will soon be installed in a new, handsome, and roomy building, our new high school.”
Construction moved forward but due to delays, it became clear the October deadline would not be met. And more delays followed. On the morning of Oct. 12, dissatisfied workers went on strike. According to the Visalia Daily Times, “Some of the bricklayers struck for higher wages,” and a shorter workday. Several workers stayed off the job as a result, which slowed down the project.
Then a carpenter named F. E. Brittain fell from the scaffolding at the building, breaking his collarbone and arm, and cutting his head. His injuries were serious, but he survived.
A week later the project was jolted again by an accident. Contractor Sharples and worker William Gill were near the top of the building when they mistakenly leaned against a drying brick wall and it collapsed. The two men fell 38 feet, with bricks and mortar landing on top of them.
Despite the delays and mishaps, the many building activities like shingling, plastering, tinning, and plumbing progressed. On Dec. 18, the high school students shared the good news: “Our new building is receiving the final touches and will be ready for us after the holidays.”
By mid-January 1897, the high school was finished and plans were made to move the students into the building. On Jan. 18, the Times, in an obviously muted compliment, commented on the finished school, “The new high school building is a credit to the city. It might have been better, but for the money available, it is not likely that it could be improved upon.” The city officially accepted the building.
Throughout the year, the building was scrutinized carefully and many construction flaws were noted. Concern was so great that city officials hired George B. Campbell, a well-respected contractor, to inspect the building. In his report on Nov. 27, 1897, he laid out a list of construction flaws and recommendations for remedy. It was clear Campbell had found serious problems with the building.
After his critical report, the Times publicly asked the question, “Where is architect Saunders in all of this?” After all, they pointed out, he drew the plans and was paid to see that the contractors did their jobs. It was clear the newspaper placed responsibility for the problem building on Saunders. Under intense criticism, Saunders admitted the building had “minor” flaws and offered to fix them, but no one wanted him to touch the building again.
Obviously concerned about the safety of the students, Principal Woolsey gathered them on the morning of Nov. 30 and marched them over to their old classrooms at the Tipton Lindsey School. He could not take a chance with the defective building.
City officials called in another structural expert from San Francisco. His report confirmed earlier defects and work began on the fixes. By Dec. 20 the high school students were seeing progress. They wrote, “We may rejoice over the fact that work had commenced on the condemned school building and in a week or so we may have the pleasure of…marching back to our deserted desks.”
The repairs were made, and the students returned to the high school. It is not clear how Saunders fared in the controversy, but it is clear that structural problems continued with the beleaguered building.
The Visalia High School stayed at the oval park until 1911, then moved to the new school built where Redwood High School is today. When the high school students vacated the oval park building, grammar school students took it over and the building name was changed to Lincoln Grammar School. In 1924, the 28-year-old building had gone through enough. It was razed leaving the plot of land which remains today as Lincoln Oval Park. n