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High Art at Hughes High

By Steven Rosen · December 14th, 2011 · The Big Picture
art_big picture_detail from a restored rookwood fountain at hughes high school_steven rosen

It was about a year ago this time I was climbing the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral to look beyond the famous stone gargoyles and see Paris. I recently climbed the winding stairwell of the usually closed-off, 145-foot-tall square tower at Clifton Heights’ Hughes High School to view Cincinnati from the exposed landing at the top. Not quite the same thing, but impressive.

Below me, as part of the extensive terra cotta decoration of the 101-year-old Tudor-style building’s exterior, memorable gargoyles (actually, “grotesques”) line the exterior. (They’re best appreciated from the ground below.) While the ones clinging to the tower are more creature-like, the lower ones are more mischievous and human-like. One holds a scroll; another a book.

Whether standing atop the school looking down or being on the school grounds looking up or being inside, Hughes High School probably hasn’t looked this good since it was new. It’s an artistic treasure, brought to new attention thanks to the $40 million restoration completed by Cincinnati Public Schools (part of a voter-approved bond issue for citywide schools). It’s really a place everyone should come admire from the outside.

But it’s worth seeking an invitation from Principal Virginia Rhodes, or watching for an open house, to see the interior. The building wraps around a courtyard, with a gorgeous two-story auditorium fanning out into the middle area.

The balcony still has original seats — it’s like entering a time warp. 

Touring the building makes you realize just how much the concept of knowledge once was revered in schools, like a religion. It’s reflected in the sculpture, the memorials, even the inscriptions on the drinking panels. (Hughes’ origins, it should be noted, go back to the mid-19th Century, when Thomas Hughes left his property to the city for the education of the poor. The first Hughes High School was located in the downtown/West End area.)

The artwork reflects the admiration felt for teachers. In the second floor media room is a stained-glass window, dedicated not to a saint but to “beloved teacher” Clara B. Jordan, who died in 1914 and began teaching at her alma mater in 1871.

In the school’s front lobby, above the two built-in “warming benches” (they are atop radiators), Rookwood friezes offer figures that celebrate intellectualism and physical strength/skill. 

The most interesting architectural elements are the 12 Rookwood drinking fountains — four on each of the three main floors. They had apparently been in pretty bad shape before recent repair by Cincinnati’s recently revived Rookwood Pottery Co., with financial help by alumni. The work isn’t finished yet — one of the most evocative of the fountains, a gift from the Class of 1941 depicting a sailing vessel inside an oval frame, still needs repair. And Rhodes would still like to see the fountains restored to use and adopted by groups — at some point, mechanical parts were removed. 

But as art objects they flow with beauty. One, a 1939 gift from the Art League, depicts tropical fish swimming through deep blue water past a coral reef and multicolored shells. And a gift from the Class of 1938 shows tropical birds with long blue tails, perched above exotic flowers that could be orchids. Another, dedicated to William Bruckmann Jr., the football manager in 1938, depicts an owl atop a lantern/oil lamp with a flame.

You can’t help but think this kind of architectural detail inspires today’s Hughes students, who study the STEM program that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math. It certainly improves the value and longevity of the building.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com 



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