Jim McKee: Full schools not a new problem in Lincoln

November 11, 2018 GMT

In 1867 the Capital Commission chose the city of Lancaster as Nebraska’s first state capital, and when the new city of Lincoln was platted five city blocks were set aside for common schools and one block for a high school. McPhee and Park schools still reside on those blocks, but McPhee Elementary occupies the block originally intended for the high school.

As you read through the minutes of Lincoln’s earliest board of education it becomes quickly evident that the city’s initial explosion of growth meant that every year one of the major concerns was building schools fast enough to accommodate Lincoln’s students. In 1871 Block 155, initially intended for the high school got only 32 votes for the actual new high school site while Block 63, the site of the now empty Pershing Municipal Auditorium, won with 185 votes, leaving Block 155 south of the state capitol, bounded by 15th, 16th, F and G streets empty.


In 1882 there were 10 crowded school buildings in Lincoln and 31 teachers. By 1883 the school board began consideration of building a nine-room elementary school on Block 155. Lincoln architect Artemus Roberts was chosen to design the masonry building to sit on a Nemaha stone foundation which would be built by Jacob Schmidt with the school building itself contracted to Michael Grace and T. G. Kelley.

Roberts had to intercede on the slow progress being made on the foundation in February of 1885, but Capital School was finally completed that September at a total cost of $14,689.20. The small frame building then on the block was moved to the Q Street School site and by October, Capital School had opened with 415 students. Even with the completion of the new building, Lincoln had “nearly 300 more (students) than could be conveniently accommodated” and the old Presbyterian Church was rented at $30 a month for classrooms.

Two years later the residents around Capital School requested improvements to the school’s grounds with costs ultimately half paid by the school board and half by the neighborhood. When a small frame Lincoln school building burned in 1886, the northwest corner of Capital School’s basement was converted to a classroom to absorb some of the displaced students, and at the same school board meeting it was decided to furnish each school with a pencil sharpener.

In 1900 a wing of four rooms was added to Capital School and the following year it was assigned students who lived south of M Street and east of 13th Street. It was then pointed out that the “basement rooms now used are objectionable and unfit for school purposes.”


A special school was established within Capital School during the 1902-03 school year for “boys who had a distaste for ordinary school work” termed the Manual Training School.

During the first decade of the 20th century the Lincoln School Board and with it the press and public, quietly changed the school’s name spelling from Capital to Capitol. The same decade saw additions to both Capitol and Whittier schools totaling $16,315, with both institutions forced to go to half days for many students until the alterations were completed. Capitol School was remodeled yet again in 1918 as Clare McPhee was named its principal.

In 1947, with an average of 325 students, Capitol School was considered 90 percent utilized, and it was predicted that some students might have to be sent to Park School. At the same time a major inspection of all Lincoln public schools showed Capitol School was deficient in terms of heating, lighting, toilets, electrical service, auditorium, physical education facilities, library, cafeteria, kindergarten classrooms, teachers’ and janitors’ rooms and fire hazards. In 1952 a cafeteria and physical education rooms were added and in 1963 Capitol School was razed.

The new, extant, building, constructed the following year, was named McPhee in honor of Clare Mary McPhee who had retired as the school’s principal in 1942 and died in 1960. During the same period Bancroft School, which had been built on the University of Nebraska’s campus in 1916 as an elementary and junior high laboratory school for teachers and technically owned by the university after 1940, closed. When built the new McPhee School had construction costs shared by the University of Nebraska and the Lincoln School Board with contracts making it the new University of Nebraska Teacher’s College laboratory elementary school. Teachers, who were considered Lincoln Public Schools employees, also received a stipend from the University of Nebraska for a time.

Today, with the renaming of 15th Street, McPhee Elementary School’s address is 820 Goodhue Boulevard and with the addition of a new gymnasium, serves an average of 320 Near South Neighborhood students.