|City/Town: • Topeka
|Location Class: • School
|Built: • 1935 | Abandoned: • 1980
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places • African American Heritage Site
|Status: • Abandoned
|Photojournalist: • Emily Cowan
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East Topeka Junior High is a modern movement/art deco school built in 1935-36. Walter Glover, who designed many other historic buildings in Topeka, designed the breathtaking structure which would cost a total of $380,000 after being completed. The 2 story, U-shaped, remarkable school was constructed by architects Cuthbert & Suehrk and Bowers & Ingram, using poured concrete clad with varying shades of buff brick with areas of carved limestone. The facade is made up of a 3 story tower with the words “East Topeka Junior High” carved above the doorway, the second story containing 3 windows with carved limestone above them and the rest of the tower is a vent leading from the windows to the peak of the tower. Office space and the former library are located on the front of the building’s first story. The rear wings are filled with classrooms that possess beautiful fir floors, the hallways throughout the structure have classic terrazzo flooring. On March 1, 1957, a fire broke out on the auditorium stage shortly after classes let out for the day. Firemen fought the blaze for 30 minutes with no injuries. Renovations were done shortly after to fix the damage.
East Topeka Bulldogs
The junior high served grades 7th-9th and was made up of mostly minority students. In the early years, school colors were brown and gold, while the last 20 years of the Bulldogs colors were orange and black.
“Shout it loud East Topeka
Shout it loud shout it strong
The Bulldog growls to the sky
Go get that ball and bring it back
For the orange and the black
East Topeka my own Jr high”
That was one of the encouraging chants students and cheerleaders shouted courtside as the Bulldogs played many of their basketball games. In the 1940’s Topeka Highs black basketball team known as The Ramblers had home games and practices in the East Topeka Jr High gym. The Ramblers and future basketball teams that played were very talented and successful.
Staff at ETJH were caring, creative, and genuinely wanted students there to succeed. “People don’t realize how amazing some of these teachers were. I hesitate to say they were all saints, but by God, they believed in what they did. I miss that a lot these days,” said Vernon McFalls who attended from ’67 to ’70. Mr. Otto Bodenhausen known by some as Bud, had an extensive academic teaching background being principal at Sumner Elementary earlier in his career and principal at East Topeka Jr. High later. He loved teaching and finding new and innovative ways to improve the education system. He shortened class periods to allow students to add an elective and created a Boys Food course which quickly gained popularity. “He was a fun person, Bud was known as a sort of a matchmaker and would set new teachers up with meet and greets when the school year started. He was responsible for a number of weddings among his young teachers,” said Elizabeth Svercl. Malcolm Smith was a vice principal, coach, and math teacher in his 26-year career at ETJH 1954-1980 when the school closed. “Malcolm Smith was a great man first, a great math teacher, and a great basketball coach. The best coach in the city at the time in my opinion. Soft-spoken, he worked us hard!” said former student Vernon Mcfalls. After talking with his children and former students I could tell how much he cared about his job and how much he cared about his students. “I have great memories of East Topeka Junior High School during my dad’s teaching years. Although I never attended the school I spent a lot of time there because my dad, Malcolm Smith, was a math teacher there. He coached different sports at East Topeka including basketball and track. On weekends he would take my brothers and I with him and we would play basketball in the gym while he worked. My brothers and I were also given jobs moving books from classrooms to the auditorium after school ended and then from the auditorium back to the classrooms before school started.” said Brice Smith, son of Mr. Smith.
“I vividly remember being in the gym to watch weekly inter-city basketball games since Dad was the Basketball Coach. I can still smell the popcorn from the concession stand and I remember feeling hot in there even though it was winter outside. In Junior High I remember going with Dad on the weekends when he went in to get caught up on grading papers. He would set up the trampoline for me and my brothers to jump on by the gym in the hall. He loved teaching at East Topeka, he always talked about a supportive parent base and good kids. I remember when he decided to dye shoe laces bright orange for the basketball team. Other schools had parent groups that had more money and that those type of things were purchased for their teams. Dad had my Mom and a Maytag washer and dryer to do the work. When there wasn’t enough money to hire buses for away games, my parents bought a used VW bus, Dad got a chauffeur’s license so he could drive the team to away activities. He hated the sort of class system the existed in the school system, but was determined that it would not impact his kids if he could possibly change things. Cliff Alfrey, another East Topeka staff person, used to make the most wonderful decorated cakes for everyone’s birthday. For my Dad, the cake was appropriately named “Big Mac” and it looked just like one!” -Elizabeth Svercl, daughter of Malcolm Smith.
Even though the Brown V. Board verdict was announced 26 years earlier racial bias was still active in Topeka schools. Busing for integration had not been used and allowed for students to attend schools of their choice causing an imbalance in minority and white students. East Topeka Jr. High had a minority enrollment of 71%, and most white students had transferred to other schools while minority students oftentimes did not have the transportation to move schools. The school district put in place a long-range plan designed to partially solve the racial imbalance particularly at the junior high level, ETJH was one of 5 junior highs closing, starting in 1980-81 school year students would go to one of the 4 remaining jr highs and two additional ones.
The school was privately sold to a couple for a measly $50,000 in 1987, unfortunately, it was discovered that it had asbestos and due to the hazmat conditions for removal it would cost too much for them to remove the asbestos and make repairs to the school. It was re-visioned in an East Topeka Neighborhood Revitalization Plan in April of 2002 as a housing complex for seniors. An article dated September 21, 2005 addresses that gang activity in the area made it unsafe for the planned senior housing complex that would reside in the East Topeka Jr. High. A subcommittee, therefore, rejected a proposal for the city to condemn the school and turn it over to a local developer, Pioneer Group Inc. “They’re going to be right in the line of fire,” councilwoman Sylvia Ortiz said.
Special thanks to Brice Smith, Elizabeth Svercl Vernon Falls, Kansas Memory and former students for pictures used in this post!
Blankenship, Bill. “East Topeka Junior High’s Last Graduating Class Plan Reunion.” The Topeka Capital-Journal, The Topeka Capital-Journal, 20 May 2016, www.cjonline.com/article/20160520/news/305209750.
“NPGallery Asset Detail.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/03001397.
Surrency, Justin. “A Look Back At How Topeka High Integrated Basketball.” Topeka, Manhattan, Emporia | Kansas News Leader | News, Weather, Sports | WIBW 13 News, www.wibw.com/home/headlines/A-Look-Back-At-How-Topeka-High-Integrated-Basketball-212088131.html.
“21 Sep 2005, 3 – The Manhattan Mercury at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/425420443/?terms=east%2Btopeka%2Bjunior%2Bhigh.
“2 Mar 1957, Page 41 – The Kansas City Times at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/53015477/?terms=east%2Btopeka%2Bjunior%2Bhigh.
https://s3.amazonaws.com/cot-wp-uploads/wp-content/uploads/planning/EastTopekaNeighborhoodRevitalizationPlan.pdf page 21
“24 May 1979, 15 – Dayton Daily News at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/405627003/?terms=east%2Btopeka%2Bjunior%2Bhigh.
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