August 2002: Frank B. Cooper School, Delridge Neighborhood, West Seattle
By Heather MacIntosh

Preserving historic schools is a complex issue that has gained increasing recognition over the past few years. The National Trust for Historic Preservation drew attention to this topic in 2001 by making it the theme of National Preservation Week. The Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects hosted a forum on historic school preservation in concert with last year's preservation week. On the forum panel, representatives from Seattle's landmarks office and the Seattle School District joked about the long and shifting road they'd walked together since the early 1990s, when fate of Seattle's historic schools was uncertain.

Master Plans

Over ten years ago, the Seattle Public School district contracted with Historic Seattle to evaluate its assets as a part of a comprehensive facilities plan. Even before the survey, community members recognized the value of historic schools, and took it upon themselves to landmark a number of local buildings. Long-time landmark schools include: Old Main Street School, 307 Sixth Avenue South, designated in 1977; Summit School/Northwest School, designated 1990 link to Northwest School article ; St. Nicholas/Lakeside School, designated 1984; West Queen Anne Elementary, designated 1977; Queen Anne High School, designated 1985, and Fremont's B. F. Day School. Many long acknowledged landmark schools are currently in the process of controls and incentives (under renovation). Among these are: Franklin High School, University Heights Elementary, and Nathan Eckstein Junior High School.

The Seattle Public School District historic building survey, completed in 1989, considered 45 schools built before 1940. Five of these properties were already landmarks or in process.

Of the 20 that were "likely to meet landmark criteria" many have since joined the city's landmarks register. This initial list included (current landmarks in bold): Bryant Elementary, Coe Elementary, Concord Elementary, Cooper Elementary, Dunlap Elementary, Emerson Elementary, Garfield High School, Greenwood Elementary, Hamilton Middle School, Highland Park Elementary, Hughes Elementary, Lincoln (Hamilton Program), Loyal Heights, Madison Middle School, Mann (NOMS and NOVA), Marshall Alternative, McGilvra Elementary, Roosevelt High School, Van Asselt Elementary, and Whittier Elementary.

Over the past few years, Seattle has lost only a few vintage schools, including Coe (a landmark that burned down) and Madrona Elementary, which was demolished after going through the landmarks review process. In the initial survey, Madrona was among the schools considered "unlikely to meet landmark criteria" due to extensive alterations and the fact that the building was basically identical to another school with greater architectural integrity. Cooper School, Madrona's twin, is now moving through the landmarks process, uncontested.

Why a Landmark?

The landmark nomination for Cooper School cites three of the six possible criteria for significance as reasons for its designation. These include:

Association with a significant person. The first African American teacher hired by the Seattle Public School district taught at Cooper School. Thelma Dewitty started work in September of 1947, after substantial post-war political pressure. World War II brought a substantial increase in Seattle's black population. War industries attracted skilled and partially skilled laborers from around the country, especially the South. Many black workers and their families moved to new suburbs, and some moved to traditionally black areas like the Central District.

Racial tension in Seattle ebbed and waned throughout its history, but the war years and those immediately after brought considerable public attention to the issue. Due to a sharp rise in letters from a concerned community, and publicity, then-Mayor William Devin (serving from 1942-1952) created the Civic Unity Committee to consider what might be done. Thelma Dewitty, highly capable, and at that time attending graduate school and writing a math book for kids, needed a job in order to stay in Seattle. With much media attention, she was hired on at Cooper School.

She retired from teaching in 1973 after years of civic involvement that included serving as President of the NAACP's Seattle chapter.

Architectural significance. Designed by school district architect Edgar Blair, Cooper School is a significant extant example of his work, with ties to Beaux Arts classicism. The latter was typified by the logical composition of interior spaces, grand classical detail, and generally assumed a commanding, publicly engaging site presence.

Community significance. The building's presence within the Delridge community makes it an unofficial landmark already. Designation just makes this status official.

Preserving Cooper School

The Delridge Neighborhood in West Seattle lies on the east side of West Seattle, along Delridge Way. Cooper School stands out as a strong historic marker of a residential community that took shape nearly 100 years ago. Although West Seattle retains many historic buildings evidencing a century and a half of development, the area contains very few protected landmarks. The area has been, for the most part, affordable but development pressures are beginning to concern some neighborhood residents. Many are calling our offices, wondering how to protect cherished community resources.

The landmarking of Cooper School and other significant historic buildings, structures, and sites, is one way to aid thoughtful growth. The school's landmark nomination was a community effort, sponsored by the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association. The preservation of the building was a part of the Delridge Neighborhood's 1999 Comprehensive Plan.

When I asked Jim Diers, Interim Director of the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association about this project, I was expecting a simple "it's great!" What I received was a thoughtful and personal reflection on the community's support for the building's preservation.

"I was recently downtown where someone recognized me as a former customer of the Italian deli where he worked. 'What are you doing now that you no longer work for the City?' he asked. When I told him that I am the Interim Director of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, he got excited. 'I grew up in Delridge,' he said. He got even more animated when I told him that we are working to restore the old Cooper School. 'That was my elementary school,' he exclaimed. When I explained that we are going to reuse the first floor as a cultural center and the upper floors as affordable artists' live/work studios, he blurted out, 'I'm a photographer. Can I live there?' He immediately volunteered his photographic services for the preservation campaign."

"Similar sentiments from the Delridge community caused them to make the restoration of Cooper School a central focus of their neighborhood plan. The 1917 brick building is a prominent landmark serving as the northern gateway to Delridge. Yet, it has been boarded up for 12 years and used for nothing but storage. What should be the pride of the Delridge community is instead a symbol of disinvestment and neglect."

"The Delridge community is eager to see Old Cooper School designated as their first historic landmark. Not only does the building evoke fond memories for many, but the beautiful structure is well suited to meeting the community's future needs. The first floor has large spaces ideally suited for coming together as a community and showcasing and celebrating the many cultures that make Delridge so vibrant. The classrooms on the second and third floors are still intact complete with lockers, blackboards, old-world maps and the original clocks, keeping good time. These rooms, with their high ceilings, large windows and permanently affordable rents, will ensure that artists will always have a good home in Delridge."

"The Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association has entered into a purchase and sale agreement with the School District. Monthly community advisory committees are well attended. At the last meeting, when we noted the need for additional money to continue with the pre-development work, one neighbor immediately pledged $500, a major contribution from someone with a limited income. An $8 million capital campaign for Old Cooper will be launched soon. Anyone interested in helping with this project is encouraged to call Jim at 923-0917."

Gee, Jim. I'm glad I asked.

View last month's Pending Landmarks article

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