Survey could help preserve Tacoma's oldest public schools

Tacoma Public Schools is expected next month to issue a request for proposal seeking qualified architectural historians and preservationists to complete a survey of Tacoma’s public school buildings to identify those that are historically significant.

According to Pete Wall, director of planning and construction for the school district, TPS will issue the request next week and award a $10,000 contract for the survey in December. When completed next spring, the survey would help the school district complete future renovations of its buildings with an understanding of which buildings are historically significant and should be preserved. It could also increase the number of schools added to the city’s register of historic places.

“We feel to the extent that we can in a systematic manner develop an inventory and sensitivity toward those buildings which should receive a deeper analysis with an eye toward preserving them for the long term, we want to do that,” says Wall.

Currently, there are only three school buildings on the city’s historic register. Stadium High School was added to the list in 1975; Lincoln High School and Washington Elementary School were added in 2006.

Of the 55 school buildings the district owns, 27 date back before 1960, which would make them old enough to at least meet the age requirement for inclusion on the city’s register. Many were designed by notable Tacoma architects Frederick Heath, George Gove, E. J. Bresemann, and Roland E. Borhek. The buildings also reflect a variety of architectural styles, including English Gothic, Tudor, and Gothic Revival.

Which schools will be identified in the upcoming survey? Obviously, that will be answered when the work concludes next spring.

But one clue might be found in a two-page report completed in 2006. At the time, the City of Tacoma’s landmarks preservation commission formed a committee to explore the issue. The committee concluded that 14 school-owned buildings (and one building owned by the Puyllaup Tribe) might be eligible for landmark designations, and organized those buildings by high, medium, and low priorities. That list, which has since been reduced to 12 in light of two additions to the register in 2006, today includes:

1. High Priority

— Barlow Annex; 3012 S. 59th St. (South Tacoma); built in 1910 by architect Frederick Heath

— Central School; 601 S. 8th St. (New Tacoma); built in 1912 by architects Heath and George Gove

— Fern Hill Elementary; 8442 S. Park (South Tacoma); built in 1911 by Heath and Gove

— Jason Lee Middle School; 602 N. Sprague Ave. (North End); built in 1924 by Roland E. Borhek

— McCarver Elementary School; 2111 S. J St. (New Tacoma); built in 1925 by John Wallin and Bachelor

— McKinley Elementary School; 3702 McKinley Ave. (East Side); built in 1908 by Heath

— Oakland Alternative High School; 3319 S. Adams St. (South End); built in 1912 by Heath and Gove

— Stewart Middle School; 5010 Pacific Ave. (South End); built in 1925 by Borhek

2. Medium Priority

— Gault Middle School; 1115 E. Division Lane (East Side); built in 1926 by Hill and Mock

— Mary Lyon Elementary School; 101 E. 46th St. (East Side); built in 1924 by Hill and Mock

3. Low Priority

— Gray Middle School; 3109 S. 60th St. (South Tacoma); built in 1926 by E. J. Bresemann

— Park Ave. School; 6701 S. Park Ave. (South End); built in 1912 by Heath and Gove

“It’s wonderful,” says Tacoma historic preservation officer Reuben McKnight of the upcoming request for proposal. “It’s very promising to hear that this is something the school district is exploring. I think it’s suffice to say there are a number of important neighborhood schools. I would like to see what [the survey] comes up with.”

The school district’s interest is also a positive sign for Historic Tacoma board president Sharon Winters. Winters worked on the 2006 survey when she was a landmarks preservation commissioner. She has also met with Wall and Tacoma Public Schools superintendent Art Jarvis to discuss the idea.

“I think it’s pretty amazing to have a school district get behind it and actually pay for it,” says Winters.

“This is very exciting for Tacoma to see the school district being proactive. To see them understand that these are assets rather than liabilities, and understand there are good people that can do this work, we can conserve sustainable resources, and we can also really preserve the incredible icons we have in our neighborhoods. It’s very exciting.”

According to Wall, a survey could help the school district know what is in front of them when they consider future school renovations.

“Right now we have been doing it on a one at a time basis,” he says. “We essentially arrive at a building for modification, scratch our head, and ask, ‘Does this building have merit or architectural significance?’ If we do this survey now, we’ll know that before we start. It’s huge from the point of long-term planning.”

Future renovations could come soon, especially considering the school board voted Oct. 23 to put a $300 million bond levy before voters next spring. If approved, the levy would be the first wave of a series of bond levies to pay for building renovations and new construction.

A historic survey completed this fall and winter could give the school district a better idea of which buildings are historically significant and should be preserved and adaptively re-used.

“A couple of the schools there, from my eye, are significant,” says Wall. “Stewart Middle School would be one of those buildings that should go into preservation mode. To the extent that we can accommodate both historic preservation as well as the educational program within those walls, we certainly want to do that.”