If you went to elementary school in St. Helena during the last 80 years, chances are pretty good that you have sat in the wooden-backed seats that still reside inside the St. Helena Elementary School’s auditorium and wondered about who designed such a wonderfully creative space.
Nora Lea Hearn of St. Helena – a student in Michelle Parriott’s fourth grade class — still finds the old school a wonderful place to learn. “Every day we meet in the auditorium, and I look up at the ceiling and the beautiful drawings and things, and it makes me so happy.”
Recently the unique architecture of the St. Helena Elementary School has been noted in a new book entitled “Wolfe & Higgins: Master Architects of the Spanish Revival” by Krista Van Laan. The book contains an excellent cameo of the building, originally called the St. Helena Grammar School.
According to author Van Lann, in 1931 the St. Helena school board was faced with a dilemma when it was determined that the original St. Helena Grammar School built in 1901 was unsafe. The board of trustees met in February 1931 to establish a bond issue for $112,000 (a cost in today’s dollars estimated at $1.68 million) to replace the structure. Initially William Weeks, a famous San Francisco architect, was selected. But Weeks bowed out of the contract the following month for reasons unclear.
Subsequently, the firm of Wolfe & Higgins was hired after the trustees visited the Jefferson Union Elementary School in Santa Clara designed by the firm. They admired the Spanish Revival style of the school and asked Wolfe & Higgins to come close to duplicating it.
The Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style owes its antecedents to a number of architectural design revivals, but the style represented by St. Helena’s Elementary School really took off from the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 in San Diego which highlighted the work of architect Bertram Goodhue. The Exposition is often credited with giving the style national exposure.
According to Van Lann, the trustees asked Wolfe & Higgins to alter the Santa Clara school’s design with the addition of a nearly full-sized basement for storage and backstage rooms for the auditorium. By July, the firm’s design was approved but the architects continued to work on the details of the plans through June.
But on July 3, 1931 Carl Wolfe died prematurely of peritonitis while completing the plans, and so Higgins continued to oversee details of the project until the building was completed in 1931. The final cost was $70,000, according to Van Lann “a surprisingly low cost even then.” The building, according to the St. Helena Star, was dedicated on June 10, 1932 and was followed by a number of performances on the stage of the beautifully decorated auditorium.
A quote from the St. Helena Star in May 1932 read: “The building is one of which the community may well be proud. Modern in every respect and beautiful in design, it reflects credit upon the architects Wolfe & Higgins. The main entrance, facing Kearney Street, is a work of art and a splendid asset to the street. Viewed from all angles, the school is pleasing to the eye.”
Generations later, Nora Lea Hearn, interviewed on the playground outside the school, couldn’t agree more. “I love this school,” Hearn said. “It’s amazing!”