For those of us who were fortunate to have East High as our alma mater, this institution is more than a building and more than an educational public service. Students experienced East as an important part of growing up in the life of a community. Many of us also have a sense of heritage as we have had parents, siblings, children, and now grandchildren study in its halls.
Wichita High School traces its roots to 1878, but the story of the current structure began in January, 1922, when the citizens of Wichita voted bonds for a new Wichita High School. Two years earlier, it had become apparent the old high school was too small to house an increasing number of pupils. A large tract of land east of the canal on East Douglas, owned by pioneer Wichitan J. Hudson McKnight, was eventually purchased by the Board of Education for $150,400 for 68 acres. Building the high school became a million dollar project at 21 cents/cubic foot.
Clearly, East High School was designed to be a monumental place and a source of civic pride. Built in the Collegiate Gothic architectural tradition, the campus consisted of three major units: the main building, the gymnasium and the shops. The auditorium had a 90-foot stage, a seating capacity of 2200, and a large pipe organ. Attractive cloistered walks connected the buildings, which also included a laundry, ice plant, office vault, greenhouse, and separate heating plant. The building was completed in 1923, but from October to December, 1923, students moved from one side of the classroom to the other as the carpenters and painters added finishing touches. Lost class time was made up on Saturdays for half-days.
The heart of East High was not the buildings but the faculty and staff. The 1929 Wichitan, the East High yearbook shared by Carol Weaverling Chambers, tells us that at least two of our teachers were on the faculty in 1928 when the school officially became East High. Vocal music conductor and impresario Gratia Boyle had accepted a position at East in 1925. Lucille Hildinger was the advisor for both the Messenger and the yearbook. She chaired the English Department during our years at East and was an extraordinary teacher of English composition and taught so many of us to write well.
The McKnight Statue
This statue, a tribute to the original owner of the land for East, J. Hudson McKnight, overlooks the lily pond, and features an early pioneer and a Native American. It was commissioned by Eva Gettner McKnight, Hudson’s wife, who donated $25,000 for its construction. The couple had come to Kansas as pioneers. Both were educated and he was a cutlery salesman when they bought the “Black Farm,” the land on the outskirts of Wichita on which both East and Roosevelt were built.
Expanded Programs, Expanded Buildings
Originally known as Wichita High School, East was the first of seven traditional public high schools to be built in USD 259, Wichita’s Unified School District. In 1929, when Wichita North High School was completed, the school’s name was changed from Wichita High School to Wichita High School East. East shared the campus with Roosevelt Junior High School, built in 1921, the first of the two schools to be built on the property.
Because of a growing recognition of needs for vocational and industrial arts, a vocational building was added in 1931 and another in 1952. From 1952-1968, approximately 500-700 students annually enrolled in the vocational courses. In 1968, the Vocational Technical Center of the Wichita Area Vocational-Technical School (now Wichita Area Technical College, Grove Campus) was opened on the East High campus. The college offers 18 different areas of training in trade and industry to students and adults. Pictured here is Rodney Pierce, ’60, practicing in the metalwork lab.
The high school’s requirements for space to accommodate educational programs forced the conversion of the Roosevelt Intermediate School in 1988 into a second wing of the high school. Through 2012, other building changes and renovations were made to meet expectations of the community as determined through bond elections. The foresight and generosity of the Wichita voters made possible a number of renovations: a new library and cafeteria, gym, science wing, and air conditioning. In 2011, East added a secondary gym and a long over-due new swimming pool. In 2012, the school opened the new performing arts center, featuring a 600-seat theater, instrumental rehearsal spaces and vocal music room.
Entrance to New Gym
For eight years of East’s history, the enrollment exceeded 3,000: 3,324 in 1952 before Wichita West opened and 3,195 in 1956 before Southeast High opened. Today, the Wichita district now divides students among nine public high schools. East’s enrollment in fall 2021 is expected to be 2,321.
In 2014, East was ranked the #1 school in the state of Kansas by U.S. News & World Report and the #1 place to work in Wichita by the Wichita Business Journal. In 2017, Architectural Digest named East the most beautiful public high school in the state of Kansas and one of the top ten most beautiful high schools in the nation.