In 1913, the Board of Education purchased 27 acres at the junction of Erie and Madison Roads from the estate of Andrew Erkenbrecher, the founder of the Cincinnati Zoo. At that time, the site was a small farm with a few scattered buildings and a pasture for grazing cattle.
The site had been selected by Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Randall Condon, and the President of the School Board, Dr. John Withrow, for the new East High School. After two years of planning, ground was broken in December 1915, but construction was delayed because of the supply needs of World War I. At one point there were plans to use the main buildings as a hospital for wounded soldiers, but the war ended before that had occurred. However, the pipes for the operating room remained in room 534, covered by a desk, until the renovation in 1989.
When the school was completed in 1919, it presented an imposing appearance. The architecture was a departure from the customary school type, being a combination of northern and southern colonial in a campus setting. The low red brick building with its pilloried portico, the lofty tower, and graceful bridge are reminiscent of Revolutionary days. On the tower and buildings are engraved quotations from Ruskin, the Psalms, and Superintendent Randall Condon. The Hyde Park Business Club donated a handsome Rookwood fount fashioned of varicolored tiles and bearing the signs of the zodiac. The Women's Garden Club presented the flagstones that surround the fountain and added greenery to the campus.
In September 1919, the school opened with an enrollment of 1300 students and 65 teachers, but not everything was completed. Electric lights, class bells, and parts of the laboratory equipment were lacking. Two buglers served as the announcers of class periods. The lunchroom was opened, but so incomplete that the students had to bring their own tableware. The stadium was still under construction, and the back athletic field was still woods.
Football players walked a mile to and from practice from a nearby field and had no lockers or showers. Games were played under the colors orange and black, a choice of the senior and junior classes of 1919. When school reopened in September of 1920, several changes took place. The corridors had lockers instead of holes in the walls, two gyms and two swimming pools were ready for use, and the football stadium, with a capacity of 8,000 was ready. A magnificent pipe organ was donated by Mr. Richard K. LeBlond, whose company was located at Edwards and Madison Roads. The Tower News was organized in 1921 as a biweekly paper supported entirely by subscriptions.
While the campus and its buildings are impressive, it is the clock tower that symbolizes Withrow. Standing 114 feet high, it is the center of the entire school plan. Inside the tower are 110 steps leading to windows above the clock, where, on a clear day, one can see for miles. A clarion that taps the Westminster chimes was added in 1969. When active, it plays chimes every quarter hour and tunes at 3:00 p.m. The base of the tower bears an inscription from the book of Psalms, "So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom."
The outside appearance of Withrow changed very little over the years until the completion of the vocational building in 1974. City engineers condemned the bridge as unsafe in 1980, but the Friends of Withrow coordinated the effort to raise $150,000 for its restoration. The restored bridge was rededicated in 1982 in honor of Nora Mae Nolan, a former English teacher.
Withrow University High School (WUHS) opened as a separate school in the fall of 2002 as a college preparatory school with two hundred ninth grade students. WUHS now has grades nine, ten and eleven. Grade twelve was added in 2005.