Written by Chris Moore
Preservationists have been grappling with the issue of historic schools since the genesis of the movement to save old buildings. And the situation in Washington is no different.
Over the past decade, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation has worked to raise awareness about the difficulties facing historic schools. Prompted in part by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s inclusion of historic neighborhood schools in its 2000 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, in 2002 the Washington Trust commissioned a study to examine the status of historic schools statewide. This study provided an overview of historic schools that remain in use, those that have been modernized, cases where schools have been successfully adapted for new uses, and identified historic schools that are endangered or have already been lost to demolition.
In the nearly 10 years that have passed following this study, much has happened across the state. For example, state formulas for funding school construction have been re-examined. Previously, local districts could access a higher percentage of state matching funds when new construction was involved, creating a disincentive to rehabilitate aging facilities. This funding disparity has since been corrected.
In our cities, we are seeing concerted efforts to modernize historic schools, enabling them to meet the needs of students in the 21st century while retaining historic character-defining features. In Seattle, bond measures for school improvements include full consideration of a school’s historic significance and the district has successfully upgraded many historic buildings, outfitting each with the latest educational technology. Due in large part to the work of local preservationists, the Spokane School District is now in the habit of favoring upgrades to existing historic schools over new school construction, a practice enabling several schools to boast of providing continuous instruction in a single facility for nearly a century.
The City of Tacoma also embraces school rehabilitation. As part of the school’s centennial celebration, the district invested over $100M to rehabilitate Stadium High School. In addition to meticulously preserving the chateau-style exterior and original shell of the building, new athletic, fine and performing art facilities were compatibly incorporated to provide students with the best of all worlds.
Following on the success of Stadium High, the city’s preservation office, local advocates, including the preservation group Historic Tacoma, and others supported the school district in an effort to identify and highlight additional historically significant school buildings. The district hired a consultant to study the issue, which resulted in six additional schools being added to Tacoma’s local register of historic places.
Despite these successes, the fact remains that not all schools are able to remain in traditional use. In these instances, it’s important to be flexible. In an effort to save their historic schoolhouse, the residents of Five Mile Prairie, a rural community in northern Spokane County, envisioned a use that was compatible with the historic function of the school while offering the opportunity to highlight the area’s history.
Partnering with the local school district, advocates successfully supported passage of a bond issue in 2005. The result: the foyer of the Five Mile Schoolhouse is home to a permanent exhibit depicting community life on the prairie while the building houses the Mead Education Parent Partnership (MEPP), an effort of the school district to provide a ‘homeroom’ of sorts for the area’s home-schooled student population.
There are, of course, ongoing challenges to find new uses for historic schools. For reasons of school consolidation, last year the Arlington School District voted to close the doors of Trafton Elementary School. Listed in the National Register, Trafton has been in use since 1912, although a school has operated on the site since 1888. The district plans to retain possession of the school and hopes to rent it out for other community uses, yet the building remains unused since its closure last year.
The Hartline School in eastern Washington faces a similar dilemma. Situated amid acres of wheat with a skyline of grain elevators, the school closed its doors in 2008, forcing students to attend the neighboring high school over 20 miles away. With demolition a real possibility, local advocates and Hartline alum formed the Hartline School Preservation Association (HSPA) and lobbied Grant County Port District #5 to purchase the building. Successful in their bid, the port took ownership last year and is working closely with HSPA on a plan for future use.
Of course, not all advocacy campaigns end well. The Moran School on Bainbridge Island offered an early preparatory school on the shores of Puget Sound. Around 1918, an impressive dormitory structure containing a ground floor theater was constructed to house the burgeoning student population. But by the 1960s, the campus converted to use as a retirement community, and the dormitory went unused—save for storage. Faced with severe maintenance issues, the owners sought to demolish the school building, prompting the Washington Trust to include the structure in our 2010 list of Most Endangered Historic Properties.
In cooperation with the owner and the local preservation commission, the organization identified a potential buyer with a plan for reuse. Unfortunately, purchase and sale negotiations broke down and the owners have reverted to their initial demolition plans. Discussions for mitigation are currently taking place.
So whether the sticking point is increasing (or, in many cases, decreasing) class sizes, school consolidation, implementing new technologies, aging infrastructure, or state policies that favor new construction over rehabilitation, historic schools in Washington face uphill challenges (and yes, that’s uphill both ways – walking to school and the return trip home!).
Chris Moore serves as the field director for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.