Located at the south end of Washington Park, South High School serves as a monument to the high design standards applied to Denver’s public schools in the days of the City Beautiful movement. Completed in 1924, the massive red brick structure represents a unique variation on the Romanesque style of northern Italy. Its clock tower, easily visible from nearby I-25, rises above the trees of the Washington Park neighborhood. Seen more closely, the school boasts such inventive details as a “protector” gargoyle, witty Romanesque-style carvings of scholastic life, striped stone trim inspired by the buildings of medieval Italy, and a clock with symbols of the zodiac in place of numbers.
South High School began as the high school division of the
Grant School (now Grant Middle School), located in the Platt Park neighborhood.
By the early 1920s, overcrowding had a made a separate high school for south
Denver a necessity. The location chosen
was a large tract of land at the south end of Washington Park. City planners, influenced by the ideals of the
City Beautiful movement, chose to place new high schools near parks and
boulevards, and South High enjoys the same relationship to Washington Park as
East High does to City Park. Civic
leaders also demanded a high standard of design for Denver’s public schools,
and South High School is one of the most impressive products of the policy.
The creation of local firm Fisher and Fisher, the
architecture of South High draws on Italian buildings of the Romanesque era for
inspiration. Architects William E. and
Arthur A. Fisher looked to the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan as a model. The school’s architects borrowed various
elements of the twelfth-century Italian basilica including red brick walls with
striped trim and an entry featuring a rounded Roman arch flanked by similar
arches of decreasing size. The school’s
clock tower is also thought to have been influenced by the bell tower of the
church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, another twelfth-century structure.
The most distinctive element of the school’s fabric may well
be its friezes and statuary, the work of Denver sculptor Robert Garrison.
Garrison’s contributions include the gargoyle, over a yard tall, perched atop
the roof, said to be the symbolic protector of the school and its occupants.
Garrison also created numerous carvings and reliefs done in the style of the
Romanesque era, but related to the building’s use as a high school. The frieze above the entry porch, nicknamed “Faculty
Row”, depicts the school’s administrators; a second frieze, representing the
student body and known as “Animal Spirits”, appears above the doors and shows students shooting rubber bands,
among other forms of misbehavior. The
monstrous figures atop the striped columnns on either side are said to represent
final exams: they stand on top of students clutching books.