WINCHESTER — Anyone familiar with Winchester knows about the awe-inspiring Handley High School. Now, the city’s only high school is getting national attention for its stunning Neoclassical Revival architecture, having been named the most beautiful public high school in Virginia by Architectural Digest.
In a recent article, the magazine listed the most beautiful public high schools in each state. For many locals, it was no surprise that Handley received the honor for Virginia.
“When you drive past the school, it takes your breath away,” Handley Principal Mike Dufrene said. “But it’s the students and the staff inside the building that truly make it a special place.”
Dufrene said students at Handley take pride in their school. He sees it in different ways every day, like when a student accidentally spills something and cleans it up instead of waiting for a custodian. Or how students get involved in extracurricular activities, such as student government, volunteering in the community, sports or the arts.
“That’s what makes the school beautiful — the amazing things that are happening inside,” Dufrene said.
Built in 1923, Handley is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. The school was designed by Cleveland, Ohio, architect Walter McCornack. The famed Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm of Brookline, Mass., designed the campus. One of the key ideas for the grounds was to make them beautiful and useful.
The school is named for Judge John Handley, who left $250,000 to Winchester after his death in 1895. The funds, invested by Winchester leaders, later built the high school.
In 2009, a five-year, $72 million renovation of Handley was completed.
Ellen Coyne, a 17-year-old senior, agrees that Handley is beautiful inside and out.
“People from out of town often say it looks like a college,” Ellen said. “And the level of academics and the level of respect students are shown here makes it feel that way, too. That makes Handley an exceptional high school.”
Ellen said she and her friends like to sit on the hill behind the school, where they have a view of the whole city. “It’s really pretty there, and it’s kind of the center of everything for many of us.”
Kaia Franklin, also a 17-year-old senior, said Handley “is almost a tourist attraction. Anytime someone from out of town is here, I show them the school.”
More than that, she said she feels the pride and excitement she and her classmates have in the school, especially when they come together for something like the hallway decorating that is part of spirit week. That’s what makes Handley so special to her.
“You can see the excitement here,” she said. “You don’t have that everywhere.”
“Of course the architecture is beautiful,” student body president and senior John Delaney, 17, said. “But when you come inside the school and see how clean and well-maintained it is, and how everyone from the custodians to the teachers and students to community members work to take care of the school, speaks volumes.”
Senior Jeremiah Foltz, 17, said he is proud to go to Handley because even though there are issues at times, everyone comes together to support each other and have fun, too. “I think having that pride in our school helps students learn more and be more successful, too. Because once you have that pride, you want to become more invested.”
All of the students said Handley’s iconic front steps are a unique feature that make the school a special and beautiful place. Not only do students take prom and homecoming pictures there, the steps also are where seniors receive their diplomas. And opposing sports teams often stop to take pictures there as well.
“We are so proud to represent Virginia in this capacity,” Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum said. “Winchester has a long standing heritage of commitment to education and excellence and that is embodied in the beautiful facility of John Handley High School.”
Van Heukelum acknowledged the leaders of Winchester, whose support was essential to the school’s recent renovation to keep the building as beautiful as it has always been. “These leaders set forth a vision to re-imagine that beautiful campus and keep it as the gem of the city. Most impressive is the many donors who added millions of dollars to the city’s allocation to go above and beyond the ‘basics’ and deliver a truly world class facility.”
Van Heukelum added: “In my short time here, I can attest to the innate pride that our students and alumni feel about their school. And it starts with the facility. Pride matters, and it has a lasting impact on this community.
“I want to be clear, the facility is pretty awesome. It takes your breath away quite literally. But what I am most proud of is what happens in that building every day. I see firsthand the dedication of our teachers and administrators and the vibrancy of our student body. Our kids and staff at John Handley High School, and in every school in Winchester, make the difference and make it special.”