Written by Ethan Williford
Photographed by Dillon Stewart
Words fall short of describing the first deliberate drive down Poplar Avenue, and yet it remains an inevitable situation, experienced by millions of Memphians over multiple generations. One does not forget the sight of East High School, an edifice of elegance, located squarely in the center of a thriving business hub.
At first glance, the building gives the impression of a palace rather than a public school, and it is sure to inspire awe from native-Memphian and transplant alike. Accordingly, the context in which the school was constructed corresponds with its illustrious exterior.
Directly following the conclusion of World War II, Memphis found itself a community in flux. Like much of the United States, new industrial and commercial opportunities fostered a period of rapid metropolitan growth. Between 1940 and 1950, the city’s population burgeoned by more than 100,000, doubling the increase seen in the previous decade. As downtown quickly transitioned toward working-class residency, Memphis’ most well-to-do citizens drifted east. With this migration of wealth came the necessity for improved civic resources in newly established, affluent areas.
In 1946, the city broke ground on East High School, a new institution built for upper-class children now living east of the Parkways. Though previously constructed city schools tended to be striking in both scale and style, East High represented a concerted effort toward majesty. The school reflected a splendor reminiscent of the families it originally intended to serve.
While the interior has undergone several stretches of renovation throughout a seven-decade history, it maintains a utilitarianism present in most Memphis public high schools. However, the outside facade overlooking Poplar Avenue projects a far greater presence. Architect Everett D. Woods styled the building and surrounding grounds as an 18th-century baroque estate. Drawing inspiration from Blenheim, Buckingham, and Château de Maisons, Woods effectively transformed a standard public-school framework into one of the most notably ornate structures in the city.
Surrounded by a speckling of sparsely planted trees, East High School is visible from all directions. The building is anchored by an impressive southern entrance, accentuated by four Corinthian columns. Equal wings extend from the main entry, resulting in annexes implanted with faux-column trimmings. While these twin extensions are riddled with decorative features, and each is distinctively impressive in their own right, both remain supplementary to the southern entryway. Between its opening in 1948 and restructuring in 1985, the eastern wing exclusively served elementary-aged children. Roofing ornaments and a lone smokestack highlight the school’s silhouette.
Though more than half a century has passed since the opening of East High School, the aesthetic beauty of the structure remains. It now inspires new generations of students and faculty. In 2001, the Benjamin L. Hooks Public Library opened a mere stone’s throw from the school. The traditional elegance of East is now forever paired with the courageous modernism of this new central library. Both are bookends of education in the city, representing a storied past and an exciting future.
However, the two institutions serve as monuments to Memphis knowledge, not because of the stone, steel and concrete comprising them, but because of the hardworking people inside. The words of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” the official pledge of East High School, hold true:
It matters not how strait the gate. How charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.