City's Landmarks Preservation Commission OKs historic nomination for 3 Tacoma schools

Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has approved a nomination to add three local public school buildings to the City of Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places.

McKinley Hill Elementary School, located at 3720 McKinley Ave., was built in 1908 and designed by architect Frederick Heath, who also designed the Pythian TempleStadium High School, and the Ansonia Building. Last year, Historic Tacoma, a non-profit organization that advocates for the protection and preservation of the city’s historic buildings and architectural heritage, placed the McKinley Hill Elementary School building on its Watch List of endangered propertiesOakland Elementary School, located at 3319 S. Adams St., was built in 1912 and designed by Heath and his business partner George Gove. Finally, Hoyt Elementary School, located at 2708 N. Union Ave., was built in 1957 and designed by Tacoma architect Robert Billsbrough Price, who also designed Tacoma Fire Station No. 17, the Tacoma Bicentennial Pavilion, and Sky Terrace Apartments.

The joint nomination for the three school buildings were prepared by preservation advocate Marshall McClintock on behalf of Historic Tacoma.

The City of Tacoma’s Historic Preservation Office has received letters of support from Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, Western Washington, or “Docomomo WEWA,” a Seattle-based non-profit organization focusing on the preservation of mid-century modern architecture in the Pacific Northwest; Tacoma architect and former City of Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Jeffrey J. Ryan; North Slope Historic District Co-Chair and former City of Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission member Kathryn Longwell; and Tacoma City Councilmember Ryan Mello.

Six years ago, Historic Tacoma partnered with Tacoma Public Schools on a project to identify and document the many historic schools built between 1908 and 1958. Four years ago, six public school buildings in Tacoma were added to the city’s historic register: Fern Hill Elementary School (8442 S. Park Ave.), built in 1911; Central Elementary Administration Building (601 S. 8th St.), built in 1912; Jason Lee Middle School (602 N. Sprague Ave.), built in 1924; Stewart Middle School (5010 Pacific Ave.), built in 1925; McCarver Elementary School (2111 S. J St.), built in 1925; and Whitman Elementary School (1120 S. 39th St.), built in 1952.

Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission conducted a preliminary review of the most recent nomination for the three school buildings during a public meeting last month. A public hearing on the nomination was held on Weds., Aug. 13. The nomination will be forwarded to Tacoma City Council for final approval. A decision is expected to be made before the end of this year.

During the public hearing last week, several people spoke in support of adding McKinley Hill Elementary School, Oakland Elementary School, and Hoyt Elementary School to Tacoma’s historic register. Here is a selection of the public comments, condensed and edited for publication. A complete audio recording of the public hearing is available online here.

Brett Santhuff (Architect, Historic Preservation Advocate) — I’m a local architect and serve on the Pierce County Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission. But I’m here just as a resident with a profound love for architecture. There’s a profound benefit to the city in preserving these buildings. I have supported the nomination of these schools for quite some time, including testifying in January of 2013 to the school board and the Tacoma school district about these three properties. All three of these schools are lovely. In particular, I am pleased to see Hoyt [Elementary School] nominated. This is a building that was a lot of fun. It was a tremendous place to learn. When it was originally built, it wasn’t the gray color that it is now. It had shades of turquoise, orange, and black trim. It was really an incredible place — the structure and the coloring and the sense of scale — and I support this nomination.

John Hickman (Tacoma Resident) — I live right across from Hoyt [Elementary School]. We have lived there since 1978. I’m proud to say both of my children went to Hoyt. I played many a neighborhood kickball with our neighborhood children at Hoyt. Hoyt is interesting for not what you see, but what you don’t see. It blends in perfectly with the neighborhood. It has a very low profile, very low impact on the neighborhood in regards to traffic. It’s widely used, at least the playground, by the surrounding neighbors, and I’m sure quite a few have taken a swing or two at the Hoyt Elementary School playground. It’s a real jewel. It belongs in the neighborhood. It fits in perfectly. I think it has many more years of useful life. My wife is a teacher for Tacoma Public Schools and nothing would please us more than to see that school continue as a Head Start program or for a primary school because it would be a terrible waste of resources to see it do anything other than remain as a public school. It’s a tremendous public benefit for all of us in the North End. I’m very proud to be here to support the nomination.

Sharon Winters (Historic Preservation Advocate) — As a former [City of Tacoma] Landmarks [Preservation] commissioner who started working with the school district probably ten years ago on this, and as a former board member of Historic Tacoma, which did the nomination for the three schools, I’m just really proud to see this on the table. Seven or eight years ago, we just had three schools on the register. All had been nominated by private citizens. The school district stepped up about three years ago and put six schools on the register. Now we are adding another three. So we have got a dozen, if my count is right, that are now going to be on the register, which is really incredible. As I work with and talk to people across the country that work with school districts, school districts don’t put buildings on the register. It makes them very nervous. I have to give big points to our school district for really stepping up, taking care of the buildings over the years, and now having a continuing commitment to taking care of them. I also want to recognize Marshall McClintock, the Historic Tacoma Boardmember who did the nomination. He did an incredible job.

Denise Smith (Tacoma Resident) — I would like to thank all my neighbors for showing up tonight. It’s really great to see everybody. I personally love [Hoyt Elementary School] as a playground. I’m right across the street from it. All we see are families. It’s a place for families to go to enjoy and to play. We actually have grown-ups that go and work out and do their yoga in the little play field there. It just fits the neighborhood. Anything else being there would totally disturb the whole feeling of our area. It’s very important for us, as a neighborhood, to keep that feeling together.

Peter Grant (Tacoma Resident) — I am one of those mid-century types that went to Hoyt [Elementary School]. I remember it distinctly after going to kindergarten at Washington [Elementary School], and being amazed by it as a seven-year-old kid and walking into this bright [building]. You [Brett Santhuff] mentioned the colors — it still stands out in my mind. I think it’s marvelous that you are doing this now.

Dak Elliott (Tacoma Resident) — My wife and I live about a half-block away from Hoyt [Elementary School]. I have a real affinity for mid-century modern [architecture]. As you drive through Tacoma, I’ve noticed year-by-year there are a lot of mid-century buildings, especially office buildings, like Sixth Avenue and around the Tacoma Mall area. One-by-one, they are systematically being bulldozed and the original character is gone. These buildings are disappearing left and right, partially because they were built with experimental and — I guess we should just be honest — inexpensive materials. So the upkeep on them is hard. They have a lot of maintenance issues. They need a lot of repair. For that reason alone, Hoyt is really appealing to me because it’s like the last vestige of mid-century modern. It’s one of the rare public buildings that’s still up.

Dan Rosner (Tacoma Resident) — My wife and I live about a block away from Hoyt [Elementary School]. My kids went to Hoyt. We’ve been in classrooms there many times. It’s a wonderful space. I must admit my thinking on Hoyt has evolved over the years. We moved into the neighborhood in 1997. Having grown up in New Jersey, I thought at first that Hoyt was ugly and I couldn’t believe it was there. But over the years I’ve grown attached to the building. I’ve come to realize that there’s a lot that we don’t know in this room. A lot of very fine architecture was destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s in Tacoma. I think it would be a shame that the same thing potentially could happen to Hoyt. So I’m here to support the designation.

Marshall McClintock (Historic Preservation Advocate, Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission Ex-Officio Member) — I would like to comment as a representative of Historic Tacoma. I am recusing myself from consideration of the nomination since I wrote the nomination. I just wanted to say that Historic Tacoma is very much committed to seeing all three of these schools [nominated]. It’s really great to see this wonderful turn-out for Hoyt [Elementary School]. Hopefully you will come back for the city council meeting, as well. Oakland Elementary [School] and McKinley Elementary [School] are both equally important schools. The South Tacoma Neighborhood Council has written a letter supporting the nomination. The North End Neighborhood Council is in the process of getting a letter to [the landmarks commission]. The Eastside Neighborhood Council supports the nomination of McKinley. The Dome Top Neighborhood Alliance also supports it. And the Friends of McKinley Park also support it. So there’s widespread support in all of the neighborhoods where these schools are, and I think justifiably so because neighborhood schools always define neighborhoods — whether it’s Hoyt in the Union Avenue area, or whether it’s McKinley along McKinley Avenue, or whether it’s Oakland in the Oakland neighborhood. I certainly would love to see these moved on to city council for consideration.

To read the Tacoma Daily Index’s complete and comprehensive coverage of Tacoma’s historic schools, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengerssecond-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State; third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; and third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright. His work has appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at