Past and present merge at an Iron Range gem

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Hibbing High School is famous for many reasons: It was the first high school in the U.S. to boast an indoor swimming pool, its auditorium was the site of one of Bob Dylan’s first concerts (shut down by the principal), and the auditorium is said to have a ghost. In seat J-47.

It was arguably the grandest high school building in the country when it opened in 1924 as the Hibbing Technical and Vocational High School. Costing the unheard-of sum of $3.9 million, the school included a greenhouse for students in zoology and biology classes, and a medical clinic staffed by a doctor, a dentist, two nurses, and support personnel. It was promoted as the “Castle in the Woods.”

Nearly a century later, the Jacobean Revival facade and two-story entry still make a strong first impression. Three pairs of doors set atop a flight of limestone steps are flanked by octagonal red-brick towers. Inside those doors, the school begins to feel more like a museum. Visitors ascend a grand staircase to a central lobby ornamented with marble finishes, terra-cotta statues, and frescoes on the walls and ceiling. To the left and right, broad, transaxial hallways reach out to pools of sunlight at each end.

This strong sense of circulation, natural light, and public space is characteristic of many great American art museums, including McKim, Mead & White’s Minneapolis Institute of Art. But it’s rare to find it in a school. Hibbing High School also has a touch of Broadway: The 1,800-seat auditorium is modeled on the Capitol Theatre in New York. Belgian chandeliers sheathed in thousands of Czech crystals hang from the auditorium’s ornate, molded-plaster ceiling. Such rich spaces and finishes make for an elevated high school experience.

“We knew our auditorium was a pretty special place,” recalls Katherine Gerzina, Assoc. AIA, a 2003 graduate who went on to a career in architecture at DSGW Architects in Duluth. “But most students just assumed the rest of the school was like any other. Only those of us who traveled for sports or other activities began to realize this wasn’t the case.”

How did this lavish building come to Hibbing? The answer is twofold: the immense value of the region’s iron ore deposits, and the civic willingness to tax it. The ore was so valuable that, in 1919, the Oliver Iron Mining Company paid to move the entire town of Hibbing to expand the Hull-Rust-Mahoning open pit. Hibbing High School moved to a new building designed by William T. Bray (1868–1959), who began his career working for noted Duluth architect Oliver G. Traphagen and went on to design schools across the Iron Range.

The lore is that building a palatial high school was part of Hibbing’s deal with Oliver Mining for relocation. But what really happened was that Hibbing and other communities were already heavily taxing the assets of the mining companies.

Architectural historian Lawrence J. Sommer, former director of the St. Louis County Historical Society, explains that this was an era “when state and local taxation policies filled the coffers of Mesabi Range communities like Hibbing and encouraged the construction of elaborate public buildings.” In 1920, the Hibbing School District had an assessed valuation of $135 million with annual revenues of $1.4 million—one of the largest per capita in the country.

Hibbing is a prime spot for a cultural landscape tour, not just for its extraordinary high school and historic mining landscapes but also for its public buildings from many periods, including the Streamline Moderne Memorial Auditorium and the modernist public library designed by noted Hibbing architect E.A. Jyring (1905–92).

After 93 years, Hibbing’s E-shaped, four-story high school remains largely intact, partly because its high ceilings allowed for updates such as cabling and HVAC with minimal intrusions. Mark Wirtanen, AIA, a principal with Architectural Resources Inc. (ARI) in Hibbing, didn’t attend the school, but he says he is “impressed by how many people want to see and experience it, and how the students for generations have respected it.” ARI is leading a renovation of the auditorium this year.

Now serving only about a third of the 1,500 students for whom it was designed, Hibbing High School retains its grandeur. For decades, watchful facilities directors such as Joe Arthurs and Bob Kearney have kept an eye on historic details. Arthurs, the school’s current director of buildings and grounds, is known for giving impromptu tours highlighting the original hallway lamps, stained-glass doors on the fire hose cabinets, and built-in display cases. In many historic buildings, especially on campuses, these features are often swept away over time.

But Hibbing has a different sense of time. Over his 28 years overseeing maintenance of the high school, the recently retired Kearney saved items likely to be tossed—old chairs, yearbooks, Bobby Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) memorabilia, pennants, and trophies—for display in a designated “history room.” “Being somewhat of a pack rat,” he says, “I kept whatever I felt was of historical significance, such as a megaphone from the 1920s, engraved bone china from the cafeteria, and photographs.”

Not all Hibbing graduates knew that their school was exceptional. Yet very few ever forgot the grand auditorium or the 60-foot-long library mural depicting the history of iron mining in Minnesota.

Katherine Gerzina remembers the Old Boys Gym as the setting for high school dances. She also recalls indoor softball practice in the gym. “I may have knocked a few ceiling tiles down and made a few dents,” she admits with a smile. Generations of graduates cherish the building not just for its noble structure but also for the memories it helped shape.