Willoughby: High school lessons from a magnate and his mansion
September 3, 2017
Some schools acquire a silver lining. A mining mogul built two mansions in San Francisco that now house prestigious schools. The Hamlin School and Convent of the Sacred Heart High School, just a block apart on Broadway, command views of the bay from a neighborhood of the city's largest and most elegant Victorian houses. James Flood, the builder, made his fortune from the Comstock Lode, the only silver district that rivals Aspen. The precious metal also illuminates Aspen High School's past.
Flood built more than a dozen homes for his wife, and the Hamlin school acquired one of them in 1928. The following generation of Floods donated the Sacred Heart mansion to the school in 1940. This wasn't the first time that Americans who prospered from silver supported the education of others in their community.
In 1899 Aspen's school board faced two problems: Students overflowed the schools and the district did not have the funds to build. Out of 1,246 students, 124 attended high school. In the spring of that year, the board considered closing the schools at Easter because they were running out of money. They managed to get through the year and decided to construct a building for high school students.
Long-time mine owner D. R. C. Brown Sr. offered to sell his mansion on West Hallam Street to the school, along with some surrounding lots. The brick home was one of Aspen's largest and most elaborate. Brown, who managed mining interests and an electric power company, had moved to Denver, where he diversified investments and bought agricultural land. The school board proposed to float a bond to raise $5,000, a price far below the property's value.
Although most believed the bond enabled a bargain, debate dragged on. Some opposed the idea because they had an ax to grind with Brown. In 1900, Brown, his neighbor Elmer Butler, and David Hyman and D.W. Brunton — owners of several more lots — donated the entire block to the school district. The community rallied and raised funds to adapt the mansion for school use, including the biggest expense, a new boiler. Within months, by the fall of 1900, the high school opened with 140 students.
A generation later, my parents attended the high school. The building had housed a school for 20 years, but my parents continued to refer to their alma mater as the Brown house. Others called it Aspen High School. But its official name was Pitkin County High School. Students from much of the county attended.
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The distinction delayed the end of the mansion's school days. In 1938 the school board lacked funds to fix up the schools. The board pushed to construct one building to house all grades at the Brown site. Ranchers' voices counted because the school had served the county in the past. But by then, their children attended rural schools. They opposed a bond for a school used mostly by Aspen's residents, especially when Aspen had the largest number of properties with delinquent taxes. While this opposition played out, the mansion's halls continued to echo with students' footfalls.
Eventually the bond passed. Today's Red Brick School grew in stages toward completion of the crowning glory, the high school. The graduating class of 1941 bade farewell to a half-century-old mansion in a sorry state of repair and the home to Aspen High School for more than 40 years fell to the wrecker in 1942. The school's silver lining had tarnished and buckled.
But the memory of its donors shines on.
Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.