1929 – Nordhoff Union High School moves into new buildings.

Famous Architect Roy Wilson Designed Nordhoff High

In September 1909, the Nordhoff Union High School was started on the second floor of the Nordhoff Grammar School. The man chosen to be the first principal of the new school was W. W. Bristol. He was born in 1867 in Illinois and had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and taught for awhile in Honolulu. Sherman Thacher was responsible for getting Mr. Bristol to the Ojai for the job of principal of the new high school. Later, Mr. and Mrs. Bristol opened a small school in their home on the drive known today as Bristol Road.

The quarters in the Nordhoff Grammar School were very restricted for the work a high school should be doing, so it was not long before the agitation for a separate building came up. The matter being put to the vote of the people of the valley was carried almost unanimously.

The site for the new building, however, was not so easily determined. After much discussion, it was decided to put the building on high ground west of the town, where Matilija Junior High School is today. It was to be a unique building of wood and stone, in the Craftsman style of architecture and facing the main street into Ojai. It was constructed on an incomparable site. The new high school opened its doors in October of 1911, with 25 students.

By 1916, with the enrollment up to 72 students, Charles M. Pratt, president of the Standard Oil Company and a director in the American Express Company, proposed to build a mechanical arts building and another building for domestic science and art at his expense. The new buildings would require additional teachers, so a vote of the community was needed. The ballots expressed the desires of the people: for two additional teachers, 40 votes; for one additional teacher, four votes; and for no new teachers, three votes.

When the new building were completed, just days before the opening of the school year, the local newspaper, The Ojai, reported that: “The school was given a great impetus and its facilities made more complete by the splendid gift of Mr. Charles M. Pratt. The Nordhoff Union High School many now well boast of being one of the best equipped of the small high schools of the state.” The modest Mr. Pratt had spend $16,500 for this improvement to the Ojai Valley.”

The great forest fire of 1917 destroyed these new school buildings, which were completed just two months before the fire, so Pratt stepped in and paid to have the structures rebuilt and equipped.

By 1929, with the grammar school no longer having rooms for the seventh and eighth grade classes, and the high school student body having outgrown the wooden structures, a plan was put into effect for the construction of a new modern school building on the back half of the school property facing El Paseo Road for the high school, and utilizing the old wooded structure for the junior high school.

The Santa Paula architect Roy Wilson, who had designed the new Nordhoff Grammar School building, Bill Baker’s Bakery and the San Antonio School building, was hired to create a sprawling school in the Spanish style, so that it would be compatible with the popular design being used in town.

When completed, the new building was even more beautiful than the architect’s drawings. The use of stone-tile, a product of the Fillmore Wiley Company of Los Angeles, gave the walls the appearance of large adobe brick, making a strong, fireproof structure without the monotony of solid concrete. The exterior walls were brushed with white paint, and the roof was of Alhambra red tile; more than 20 tons of tile were used on the roof the building.

The well-balanced proportions of the auditorium, the long arched cloister connecting the classrooms and the wrought iron door at the entrance were all features that added to the beauty of the building. The floor plan of the structure created a large courtyard which was shaded by towering oak trees—a most pleasant place to study and meet with friends.

The interior decorating was done under the direction of Douglas Donaldson, a Hollywood artist, and was a distinct departure from the usual drab school interiors. Some of the rooms were done in a pale green with doors and woodwork a dark brown, the other rooms were done in different colors.

The outside trim was a dark violet, with the wrought iron work and rafter ends in the same color. A lighter violet was used for the trim under the arched passageway, while doors opening into it were a light green.

The new building contained three classrooms, kitchen and a large cafeteria, a spacious laboratory, a study hall with adjacent book room (library), four offices, boys’ and girls’ shower rooms and the auditorium. One of the offices included a large fireproof vault for the keeping of valuables and records.

One of the most useful features of the building, and to the community at large, was the new auditorium. A large stage, with dressing rooms and ample space above for modern curtain equipment, occupied one end of the room, and at the other end, above the front entrance, was the projection room that would accommodate a motion picture machine.

The auditorium was heated by two large fireplaces in the rear corners of the main room. Similar fireplaces were located in the other rooms of the structure. An acoustic plaster was used in the auditorium which would deaden all echoes and do away with the rebound of sound that one would often find in other buildings.

In the kitchen and cafeteria, which were also used as a domestic science laboratory and classroom, was a large Roper restaurant range with a thermostat oven, which was given to the school by the Southern Counties Gas Company.

In 1959, the school district built the Matilija Junior High School on the Maricopa Highway. In 1966, the Nordhoff Union High School and the Matilija Junior High School traded school buildings. Today, the high school campus is still the center of much of the valley’s activities and currently has an enrollment of 1,270 students.

The junior high school building has been maintained with pride for these last 70 years, and it has continually retained the beauty and charm of an earlier time.


— David Mason
First published by the Ojai Valley News on July 10, 1999



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