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’St. Petersburg High School’ is engraved on a Mirror Lake condo building. Why?

The city’s first high school has a history that stretches back a century with many moves along the way.
The old St. Petersburg High School on Mirror Lake in 1919 during the school's first year there. After it left the building in 1925, St. Pete High moved into its current home on 5th Avenue. [University of South Florida St. Petersburg]
Published Sep. 18
Updated Sep. 18
"Florida Wonders" is a new Tampa Bay Times series where readers can ask questions and we will answer them. [LOGO DESIGN BY LISA MERKLIN | Logo design by Lisa Merklin]

Travis Thomas was walking by a building of condominiums on Mirror Lake Drive when he noticed some words engraved above the front door.

“St. Petersburg High School.”

A former student, his interest was piqued. So, Thomas, 19, wrote to Florida Wonders with this question: “Is this the original building?”

Have something you’ve been wondering about the Tampa Bay area or Florida? Ask Florida Wonders.

The building was indeed the home of St. Pete High in the early 1920s. It wasn’t the school’s original building, but rather one of many.

Completed in 1919, it was meant to last for decades. But the high school outgrew the building in five years.

A 1984 National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the current St. Pete High building noted the hopes for Mirror Lake.

“The public was promised that the new facilities would last a generation.”

Four of the buildings that housed St. Pete High in its early years are in this photo from 1925. In the bottom right corner with tower atop the roof is the old Graded School. The building with the dome (center right) was built in 1911 and the one to the left with the tower was built in 1902. Across the lake (center) is the Mirror Lake building completed in 1919. [Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, University of South Florida St. Petersburg]

The early days

St. Pete High’s history before 1919 is patchy at best.

In the fall of 1900, a teacher named Joseph Guisinger founded the school with five students, according to the 1984 nomination form. It was established within the walls of the St. Petersburg Graded School.

The school moved multiple times in its first 20 years, all within one city block in downtown St. Petersburg. The school sat on the site of present day City Hall at one point.

At the time, it was the city’s only high school, according to a 1962 annual report by Pinellas County Schools. Its first graduating “class” in May 1901: one student, Annie Bradshaw, the daughter of future mayor James Bradshaw.

Women perform for Fair and Tourist Week at St. Pete High in 1913. This took place on a stage in front of the school built in 1911. [St. Petersburg Museum of History]

A front page story in the St. Petersburg Times on that May 4 documented the day.

“At the hour yesterday afternoon the Assembly Hall was crowded to overflowing with parents, patrons, and friends of pupils and school,” the story read.

Bradshaw’s essay was the “principal event of the program.”

“Half a century ago in some parts of the country the public school was not looked upon as it is now. But there was a reason for this disfavor with which it was regarded,” she wrote. “These schools were often presided over by very incompetent teachers who besides having very little knowledge were often stern and cruel and seemed to take delight in inflicting severe punishments. This forms a striking contrast to the modern school, where the teachers are kind and the lessons are made as pleasant and interesting as possible.”

Guisinger then presented her with the first St. Pete High diploma.

Another Times story reported that by 1905, the school had 24 graduates, including 14 women and 5 men. Five other graduates were not named.

Overcrowding forced two more moves, and by that same year the situation was so bad that parents wanted a building just for high school classes.

So in 1911, St. Pete High moved into its next building, located across the street from the present day City Hall. But Pinellas County school enrollment nearly doubled by 1918. There were only four county high schools at the time and St. Pete started to overcrowd again. This is where 701 Mirror Lake comes in.

The front steps of the building St. Pete High occupied before moving to Mirror Lake. This building was later torn down to open up 2nd Avenue at 5th Street. The city closed off 2nd Avenue to build the school, much to the chagrin of St. Pete residents. This photo was taken in 1911. [Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, University of South Florida St. Petersburg]

Mirror Lake

Construction of the 701 Mirror Lake Drive facility was plagued with high costs, labor shortages and a contractor who went broke during construction, according to the nomination form. Built during World War I, it was one of two major city buildings constructed between 1917 and 1918. The four-story St. Petersburg Mirror Lake High School was finished in November 1919.

Most of the students who graduated from the school during its Mirror Lake stint — even in its last year, 1925 — would be over 100 years old now.

And since it was the only city high school until 1953, the children of St. Pete’s most prominent families walked through Mirror Lake’s halls.

In early 1920s yearbooks, last names like Tomlinson, Bradshaw and Pheil pop up on class photo pages. For a little city history, those names trace back to city benefactor Edwin H. Tomlinson and former mayors James Bradshaw and Abram Pheil.

Bertha and Harvey Pheil, two of Abram Pheil’s kids, attended the school in the early and mid-1920s and both played sports all four years.

Bertha “Bert” played water polo on the school’s swimming team before graduating circa 1920, according to the 1920 yearbook.

Younger brother Harvey, nicknamed Hops, played football and was captain of the team his senior year.

In the 1925 yearbook’s football pages, a black and white photo of Pheil standing and grinning widely was placed beside a tribute paragraph about his time as captain.

He was called “the husky, fearless and hard-working captain of these boys of 1924.” Pheil graduated in 1925.

St. Pete High occupied this building on Mirror Lake from 1919 to 1925. This photo is from 1919. [Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, University of South Florida St. Petersburg]

The later years

The high school moved out that year and a girls’ middle school, Mirror Lake Junior High, took its place the next.

Midge Trubey, 71, went to the school in the early 1960s. Coming from a one-floor elementary school, going up and down four floors between classes made her feel “grown up.”

Trubey remembers running on a partially unpaved path around Mirror Lake for physical education class. She said she often tripped herself in the grass, calling herself “klutzy.”

Susan Regan, another student, estimated the run took about 25 minutes to complete, and she was out of breath when it was over. A friend of hers, she said, managed to just breeze through the exercise.

The auditorium was in the middle of the building, and its stage doubled as a court for boys basketball. A side street was blocked off for girls to play volleyball and basketball in the dirt.

Taken in 1926, St. Pete High moved to this building on 5th Avenue the year before. The school remains there to this day. [Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, University of South Florida St. Petersburg]

The new St. Pete High

St. Pete High opened at its current location in December 1926, standing on seven acres on 5th Ave N. At the time, it was dubbed the “million dollar school” because of its final price tag.

An excerpt from the 1925 yearbook detailed what was inside, from an auditorium whose stage doubled as an indoor gym (an exterior one was built years later) to a dental clinic.

There also were separate “special club rooms” for male and female students. The boys room had, among other games, billiards and pool tables. No description of the girls room was provided.

“It is architecturally the most significant educational building in the city,” wrote Howard Hansen and Larry Paarlberg, the two employees at the state archives in Tallahassee who wrote the nomination form. “The plan and design of the school was so skillful that it has been little altered over the years and still satisfies the needs of a modern high school.”

The old St. Petersburg High School building on Mirror Lake, St. Petersburg. Monday, September 16, 2019. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Mirror Lake today

When you walk through 701 Mirror Lake Drive today, the hallways that once led to classrooms now lead to condominiums converted in 1991.

No two are the same, according to St. Pete resident Bill Garamella, who owns a third-floor unit with his wife Lisa.

On the seconnd and third floors, old school desks are tucked unassumingly into corners, with no context or reason given. One two-seater desk has a state flag draping over it, almost hiding it from view.

Garamella said the protrusion on the west side of the building, wrapped with nine ceiling-to-floor length windows, was once a school chemistry lab.

Entering through the front doors, below the stone that reads “St. Petersburg High School,” a short hallway features framed photos and news articles on both walls.

On the right one, an article with a photo shows William Ittner, the man who designed the building.

On the left, there’s a set of photos showing what used to occupy the building: many schools, including an early St. Pete High.

What questions do you have about the Tampa Bay area or Florida? Fill out the form below or email your inquiries to floridawonders@tampabay.com.

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