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Media Life: Travel back to 1964 to walk the hallways of doomed Placer High building

By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Gus Thomson and Media Life can be reached at

or 530-852-0232. Thomson is an award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.        

Impressive it was both visually and architecturally.

But structurally, the old Placer High School building couldn’t pass muster with state architects and earthquake regulations.

This undated photo from the Journal archives — pre-Photoshop tinting is left in for historical ambience — provides a glimpse of what was lost when the 1906 building’s top floors were demolished in 1965.

The school’s library now occupies the footprint of what was one of Auburn’s architectural pride and joys.

But the photo doesn’t do justice to what the building originally looked like when it was first opened the year — ironically — of the San Francisco earthquake.

Dome on top

Originally, an ornate dome topped the center of the building. Perhaps, school officials infected with an edifice complex were intent on competing with the Placer County Courthouse’s dome as they sharpened their pencils on a budget for what would be a $40,000 construction project. The school building would itself outlast its own dome by 50 years. By the mid-1910s, the dome would be removed because of leakage issues.

The red brick building allowed 22 classrooms, with the front windows the most valued real estate, offering a commanding view into the Downtown.

Students who had been schooled in a relatively primitive wood-frame structure next door returned to start the school year in 1906 in relative luxury, with an automatic heating and ventilation system providing a comfortable climate for learning. The old normal school building next door was soon torn down.

As it does now, a certain sportiness attached itself to school life. By 1909, showers and lockers were available in the basement for student athletes. But there was also room for art. Photos from that time show statuary in the halls — probably not the best place to display artwork that would tend to topple in a temblor.

1933 game changer

Thousands of students received their Placer High School education in the building but the harbinger of the old school’s demise took place in 1933 in Southern California.

The time was 5:55 p.m. and, fortuitously, it was a Friday. Classes were out when the Long Beach Earthquake struck. By the time the shaking had subsided, 230 Southern California school buildings had been destroyed or declared unsafe.

With the prospect of losing lives as well as buildings, the state Legislature was quick to act. Within 30 days, the Field Act earthquake law was signed into law. It meant that new public school buildings would have to meet state standards that would prevent structural damage during the frequent quakes that strike in California. It also meant buildings constructed before 1933 would have to come up to standards too.

For more than 30 years, Placer High school officials were able to fend off a big budget hit — and, in an area not historically prone to shakers, considered by some unneeded.

In 1964, the Alaska earthquake struck, creating a new impetus to school officials. Lincoln Way School — Auburn’s chief elementary school of the day — was shut down in 1964 and then underwent a quake rehab. Trustees were told that they would be personally liable if the building, constructed in 1915, were to crumble or tumble. Ophir’s Spanish Mission Revival elementary school, built in 1924 was torn down and replaced at around the same time because costs were more to renovate than replace.

Fountain removed

The Placer Union High School District was soon planning a revamp of the old Placer High building and the work was done, with construction of a new library on the ground floor and two wings of classrooms replacing the red brick edifice.

As for the fountain, it too has not passed the test of time. The gift of a graduating class, it has become just another missing link to the past in a photo of unknown vintage — a memory to some and a mystery to many.

Gus Thomson and Media Life can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com or 530-852-0232. Thomson is an award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.