Built in 1925, East High School (1545 Detroit Street, Denver) is a public school that exemplifies the City Beautiful Movement’s dedication to placing schools in generous park-like settings and making them lessons in distinctive design. East is prominently situated south of City Park along the City Park Esplanade, with the Dennis Sullivan Gateway’s forty-foot columns and Dolphin Fountain serving as a formal entrance to City Park and the high school. Academically as well as aesthetically, East High ranked as Colorado’s top school for decades and was listed with the nation’s best high schools.
The current East High is the school’s third home. East traces its origins to the 1873 Arapahoe School (since demolished), located on Arapahoe Street between Seventeenth and Eighteenth Streets. The city’s first impressive school building, it originally housed other grades before becoming exclusively Denver High School, whose first class graduated in 1877. After a West Side High School opened in 1892, Denver High was renamed East Side High School. Later it became simply East High School after other directional high schools—North (1912), West (1923), and South (1926)—were built.
As the student body grew, East moved in 1881 into a new building at Nineteenth and Stout Streets. That school, designed by Colorado’s first licensed architect, Robert S. Roeschlaub, also doubled as the home of the Denver Public Library. To accommodate the city’s multiplying population, the building was greatly expanded over the years with two large, ornate wings. This three-story Romanesque showplace was considered one of the city’s jewels. After the current East opened in 1925, “Old East” closed and was demolished to make way for the Federal Building and US Custom House on the site today.
“New East” is the work of Denver architect George Hebard Williamson, himself an East graduate, who also helped plan such notable structures as Denver’s Daniels & Fisher Tower (1911) and the Antlers Hotel (1898) in Colorado Springs. For East High School, he designed an eclectic adaptation of the English Jacobean style reminiscent of Philadelphia's Independence Hall and Old Hall at the University of Oxford in England. The four-story, steel-frame building has a 162-foot-high clock tower sheathed in various shades of red brick (with occasional purple-black brick for contrast). Elaborate, light-gray terra cotta stands out in banding, pilasters, and decorative trim.
East represents a modern emphasis on making schools lighter and brighter. The building’s H-plan and its many large windows made it a model for bringing daylight and fresh air into nearly every room. Exterior windows stretch to the ceiling of many rooms throughout the school, while interior windows in each classroom originally allowed sunlight to spill out into hallways (they have been closed up to comply with modern fire codes). The building’s price tag of nearly $1.5 million (not counting the land, furnishings, and equipment) speaks to the willingness of Denver voters to pay for a first-rate school facility.
The clock tower, the school’s most distinguishing feature, has a large room just below the clock made mostly of windows. In 1989 it was converted to the “Tower History Room,” a center for the preservation, display, and research of historic East High documents, photographs, and artifacts. The garden on the school’s south side contains a badly eroded sandstone angel salvaged from the grand entry arch of old East as well as the bell from the original 1873 Arapahoe School.
The Biggest and Best
Academically as well as architecturally, East High has been honored repeatedly over the decades as one of America's best high schools. Besides dedicated teachers and administrators, East has benefited from drawing its student body largely from affluent neighborhoods where parents have the money, time, and resources to make East a pacesetter. Early on, the school focused on becoming a college prep school, sending its graduates on to higher education with the help of as many as six Latin teachers who imbued students with the writings of Julius Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil. The faculty was notable for its longevity and dedication. East was honored in 1957 as one of the country’s top high schools and subsequently selected in 1968 as one of America's top ten high schools. In 2000 Newsweek recognized East as one of America's top 100 public high schools.
For years East claimed to be the biggest as well as the best school in the state. It remains the largest high school in Denver by a wide margin, but several suburban schools have surpassed it in enrollment. The school focused on athletics and often produced winning teams in a wide range of sports. East High has a long list of celebrated graduates, including singer Judy Collins, poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril, actor Douglas Fairbanks, astronaut Jack Swigert, and archaeologist Marie Wormington.
In the 1960s and 1970s, East High became one of Colorado’s best examples of successful racial integration. Denver Public Schools began active integration efforts in 1969, and in 1973 the US Supreme Court ruled in Keyes v. School District No. 1 that Denver had to bus students around the city to achieve racial balance in schools. At East, administrators, teachers, and students all made a point of asking Black students into their homes, churches, and neighborhoods on the theory that getting to know each other would lessen fears and promote camaraderie. East has been praised for a largely successful integration strategy while shifting from a student body of mostly wealthy whites to one that is more diverse. When the busing order was lifted in 1995, however, new school boundaries continued to assign wealthy white neighborhoods mostly to East, though the rise of choice enrollment in Denver has somewhat reduced the influence of zoning on school demographics.
In recent decades, East has been a model of historic preservation, using National Register and Denver landmark designations to avoid the radical remodeling and demolitions facing so many older schools. East has undergone various minor restoration projects that have preserved most of the original structure. One of the most spectacular restorations is the ornate wood-paneled library with its coffered ceiling, marbleized rubber floors, and expansive mural by Hugh Weller titled The Travels of Marco Polo, one of Denver’s major Civil Works Administration projects from the New Deal. The gray Ozark marble of the main lobby is still adorned with a bust of the East High mascot, an angel, and a replica of Michelangelo’s David, a tribute to triumphant youth.
Today East High School enrolls more than 2,500 students in grades 9–12, with a diverse student body that is roughly 52 percent white, 22 percent Latinx, and 16 percent Black. During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, students painted a Black Lives Matter logo on the north wall of the athletic fields facing East Seventeenth Avenue and City Park. Next to it they also painted logos representing other student ethnic groups in a display of multicultural solidarity.