Bisbee High School
Constructed in 1914, and designed by California architect, Norman F. Marsh, the Bisbee High School is located within the heart of Bisbee’s National Register Historic District. Although one of the richest school districts in Arizona at the time, Bisbee was without a formal high school building until a school bond election was held on February 1, 1913, allocating funds for its construction.
Bisbee’s school system had a modest start. In 1881, the same year as School District #2 was established, the city’s first school was opened. Clara Stillman, sister of the local postmaster, was recruited as the school’s first teacher. Stillman oversaw the education of five children, all of whom were housed in an abandoned miner’s cabin in Tombstone Canyon. The cabin had no doors, windows, and an earthen floor. Desks and chairs were fashioned from packing crates, nail kegs, and flour barrels. The school did not last long, however, and after only four weeks it was moved to the Miner’s Union Hall in Brewery Gulch. The Brewery Gulch school persisted another two years before a formal schoolhouse was built.
In 1883, the Cooper Queen Mining Company built a one-room schoolhouse for the community on the site of what is now the present-day Central School. The new school had thick adobe walls, a tall ceiling, wood floors, formal doors and windows, as well as seating and a platform for its second teacher, Daisy Robinson. Shortly after it opened, local miners collected donations to install a bell atop the school and a small iron stove to heat the building. When not in session, the school also served as the community theatre, lecture hall, dance hall, and on Sundays, the Union Church Association held religious services inside the schoolhouse. The school was in use for several more years before it was replaced with the larger, two-story Central School.
Historical Postcard of Central School, ca. 1905.
By the early 1900s, with Bisbee’s growing population, it became increasing clear that a larger school was needed. In fact, the local children were the biggest proponents for a new school and helped push community approval of a $75,000 bond to fund construction of a new school. In 1905, the Central School opened and was an impressive two-story brick and stone building with a central belltower, decorative arched entryway, hipped roof, and banks of large windows across each of its elevations. The school offered elementary through high school curriculum, although the high school program’s curriculum was limited. Despite these limitations however, four young women graduated in 1906. The following year, voters approved the establishment of a high school to be housed within the walls of the Central School and from 1905 to 1913, Central School remained the only school in Bisbee.
In January of 1913, the Bisbee Daily Review noted that despite Bisbee being one of the richest districts in the state, it was without a proper high school and pressed the community to support the construction of the new school. The following month, a bond election was held, and voters approved $80,000 in funds for construction of the new school. Shortly thereafter, California architect Norman F. Marsh was retained to design the new high school and William Bashore, a local contractor, was awarded the construction contract.
Norman Foote Marsh (1871-1955) was a California-based architect whose work can be found throughout Arizona and California. During his career, he designed many civic and religious buildings, with over 20 churches in the Los Angeles area alone, and several schools in Arizona, including Mesa Union High School, Phoenix Union High School, and Yuma’s Roosevelt School. He was also a principal and partner with the design firm, Marsh, Smith, and Powell based in Los Angeles, and is most widely know for his work designing the City of Venice, California, for developer Abbott Kinney. Today, many of his buildings, including the Bisbee High School, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Marsh’s neo-classical design, while subtle compared to other high style examples, exhibited many of the characteristic features of the style, including columned main entrance, dental courses along the roofline, a fanlight window above the main entry, scored concrete, smooth wall finishes, a triangular pediment, and symmetrical form. Marsh also took into consideration the area’s hilly topography by designing the building to accommodate the sloping terrain in such a way as to allow street level entries on all elevations despite not being sited on a level grade.
Once completed, the three-story, 45,000 sq. ft. building could accommodate 450 students. And, over its history, the school was recognized as one of the leading public schools in the country, ranking among the best preparatory schools in the nation according to the Bisbee Daily Review, which noted that the school had earned accreditation with the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Moreover, the local press boasted that many of the school’s graduates attended university, including enrollment in the University of Arizona, Stanford, University of Michigan, University of California, and University of Minnesota.
Historical Postcard of Bisbee High School ca. 1914.
Over the next several years additional schools were built to accommodate Bisbee school children, including Greenway Elementary, Lowell Junior High School and Horace Mann Junior High School. In the winter of 1919, however, the interior of the high school was gutted by fire. According to the local fire department, the fire started in the basement furnace and traveled up through the flues, damaging each floor was it rose through the building. An emergency school board meeting was held immediately after, and students were sent to Horace Mann Junior High School in various shifts throughout the day to attend classes, while commencement activities were shifted to the local churches. Fortunately, however, the school board had acquired insurance on the building, a fact that local insurance companies used to their marketing advantage. Because of the insurance, the school board was able to partially fund the repairs to the building, once again retaining Norman Marsh to prepare new drawings to update the interior.
In addition to planning and designing the repairs to the building, Marsh was also asked to draft plans for an annex to the high school to accommodate classroom spaces for technical trades, such as auto repair, a machine shop, and blacksmithing. In 1920, the school re-opened its doors with a remodeled interior and additional space. The school remained open until 1959, when it was superseded by a larger, mid-century modern building. Since its closure it has served as the county library and office space for county staff. In 1980, it was listed as a contributing resource to the National Register Bisbee Historic District.
Insurance Advertisement in the Bisbee Daily Review. Note the second paragraph in bold type describing the Bisbee High School fire.
Bailey, Lyyn R.
1983 Bisbee: Queen of the Copper Camps. Westerlore Press, Tucson.
Bisbee Daily Review
1913 No Title. 1 Jan 1913
“Bisbee Richest District is Without a High School Despite its Lead in Wealth.” 1 Jan 1913.
“Notice of School Bond Election.” 24 Jan 1913.
“Bisbee Schools.” 21 Dec 1913
1919 “Public School Notes.” 5 Oct 1919.
“Bisbee Promptly to Rebuild High School Razed by Flames.” 17 Dec 1919.
“Architect Leaves.” 24 Dec 1919.
Bisbee Unified School District
2022 Bisbee School History accessed at: Bisbee Unified School District #2 - Bisbee School History (busd.k12.az.us), 8 February 2022.
City of Bisbee
2022 Old Bisbee High School Redevelopment accessed at: Old Bisbee High School Redevelopment | Cochise County, AZ, 8 February 2022.
2021 “Meeting on Old Bisbee High School to be Held Oct 2.”Sierra Vista Herald, 26 Sep 2021.