Portables, seen at left, extend from the current Walla Walla High School as a temporary answer to the school's growth.
Photo by Jeff Horner.
Building and upgrading a high school for local students have been mired in periods of controversy from when their foundations were laid the year of statehood.
“Walla Walla High School was begun in 1889 over the protests of numerous citizens,” according to a history published by Wa-Hi students in the mid-1970s.
The issue was settled when a local judge decided the community could establish a Department of Secondary Education. Twelve teens met three times a day at a local grade school to study three subjects.
The next year, a high-school area was set up at a different elementary and the curriculum eventually expanded to 17 subjects.
But by the early 1900s, more than 250 students needed their own home. Therefore, a dedicated high school building was constructed in 1904 and 1905 facing Palouse Street near Birch Street, on what now are the grounds of the YMCA. A gymnasium was built just south of the high school a year or two later.
The school soon became inadequate and overcrowded, to the point that “shacks” containing borrowed church pews were placed on the property to accommodate students. (The crude buildings performed the function of modern portables in use at the present campus.)
“Only after a vigorous campaign on the part of the students was a bond issue passed in 1917, making it possible (for) the addition of the eastern two-thirds of the high school grounds at the same location (with entrances off Park Street),” the Wa-Hi history says.
A new gym — still used by the YMCA — was built at Park and Birch in 1936, when the original gym was repurposed to house the military, art, music and shop departments.
The student population continued to escalate. In the late 1950s, a new location for Wa-Hi was proposed amid opposing and ultimately aborted plans to remodel the existing plant, build a second high school and one in College Place.
Contention abounded, according to a paper written by Franklin “Pete” Hanson, who eventually became superintendent of the school district.
“After many petitions had come to the (school board), and citizens suing the district, and the district’s lawyer representing citizens that were suing the district, and the failure of a bond issue, and the establishment of a large citizens’ committee, a second successful bond issue was passed,” Hanson wrote.
He was principal when classes for about 1,600 students started Jan. 2, 1964, at the new and present school building at Fern Avenue and Abbott Road. The cost totaled about $3.1 million.
The buildings from the early 20th century near Palouse and Birch were torn down in 1976 after being the home of the community college.
A vocational building was built at the present Wa-Hi in 1984. Other additions were made possible by passage of a $3.62 million bond issue in 1989. But extensive modernization plans have been stymied by controversial bond proposals defeated by voters in 2006 and earlier this year.
Wa-Hi’s history is clearly depicted in photographs. But its future hasn’t yet been brought into focus.
Look for in-depth coverage of school district facility needs in future editions of the Union-Bulletin.