Can we save the old Horace Mann School?

The classic building, last one standing by an early architect, has been closed by the School District. That could create serious problems for a crime-torn neighborhood, unless a new use is found. Some residents are trying.
Crosscut archive image.

Horace Mann School, 1979

The classic building, last one standing by an early architect, has been closed by the School District. That could create serious problems for a crime-torn neighborhood, unless a new use is found. Some residents are trying.

One consequence of the Seattle School District'ꀙs January 29 vote to close five public schools this year is the historic Horace Mann building in the Central District will soon be shuttered indefinitely. That's bad news for its sketchy neighborhood along Cherry Street.

'ꀜRight now we plan on mothballing the building. We don'ꀙt have an immediate plan for doing anything with it,'ꀝ says Kathy Johnson, the school district'ꀙs lead facility manager. Johnson says the district will evaluate it and make a recommendation to the school board, which will cast the final vote on the building'ꀙs fate. 'ꀜPlease allow us to sell it, or rent it, or make it vacant,'ꀝ is what the study will say, explains Ron English, deputy general counsel for the district, who also handles its real estate. But that won'ꀙt happen until late fall.

As part of the district'ꀙs budget-cutting 'ꀜCapacity Management Plan,'ꀝ the nearly 300 students of Nova alternative high school have been evicted from the 100-year-old building on E. Cherry St. and 24th, where their school program had been since 1975. They are being sent to Capitol Hill to share the Meany Middle School building with the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center students.

The district is also closing T. T. Minor Elementary, less than a mile away. The prospect of two more vacant buildings in the CD has raised some concerns in this neighborhood that is riddled with crime, much of it youth violence, and already pocked by empty buildings. Although Mann is directly across the street from the Garfield Community Center, the newly renovated Garfield High School, and the new Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center, this is one of the city'ꀙs more crime-ridden zones.

Johnson claims the district has had 'ꀜmultiple inquiries on both buildings regarding rentals from various community groups and organizations.'ꀝ But because Mann is on a tighter parcel of land and is a historic building, it makes it in some respects less obvious choice for repurposing than T. T. Minor. It also brings up a lot of issues about historic preservation.

In the meantime, the district will board the windows, change the locks, and keep some heat on in the building, says Johnson. A custodian will check in on it about once a month while doing the rounds on the district'ꀙs other unused properties. 'ꀜWe'ꀙll have 10 or 12 buildings that will be vacant,'ꀝ says Johnson.

Built in 1902, the stately three-story blue and white Beaux Arts Neoclassical building was first called the Walla Walla School after the original name of the neighborhood, one of the oldest in the city. It was renamed Horace Mann in 1921 in honor of the 19th century champion of universal free education, and served as an elementary school until 1968, housing various, mostly alternative, schools after that. In 1975, Nova moved in.

According to Chris Moore, field director for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, the building qualifies for landmark status and has been included in the city'ꀙs historic sites inventory database. 'ꀜThe building has been identified as meeting the criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places ('ꀦ) and the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, and is located in a potential national and/or local historic district,'ꀝ says Moore.

'ꀜI think there is no doubt it is significant,'ꀝ says preservation consultant Mimi Sheridan. 'ꀜCertainly it is an important school. It is one of the oldest schools in the city. It was done by a prominent architect, Charles Saunders of Saunders and Houghton,'ꀝ which designed five schools in Seattle, according to Sheridan: Mercer, Minor, Columbia, Rainier, and Walla Walla.

What'ꀙs more, Mann may be the last of Saunders'ꀙ school buildings left standing, she says. Indeed, according to Building for Learning, Seattle Public Schools 1862-2000, by Nile Thompson and Carolyn Marr, the original T.T. Minor building was demolished in 1940, Mercer was demolished in 1948, and Rainier (originally the Jackson Street School) was razed in 1957. Columbia, built in 1890, was originally the Pontius School; the name was changed to Lowell in 1910, which remains in Capitol Hill, but the original S&H structure was demolished in 1959. So that leaves Horace Mann.

That would further qualify Mann for landmark status, says Washington Trust'ꀙs Moore, since categories used to designate buildings include: 'ꀜbest examples'ꀝ of a style or architect'ꀙs work, 'ꀜfirst/only built,'ꀝ and 'ꀜlast remaining.'ꀝ

'ꀜIt'ꀙs likely the land holds more value than the building,'ꀝ Moore also points out, a fact that worries some members of the community who don'ꀙt want to see the building replaced with condos. That wouldn'ꀙt happen easily, says Moore. 'ꀜGiven the size of the building, any proposal to demolish it from a future owner would have to go through the Landmarks Board,'ꀝ says Moore. Another factor that might save the old building are also federal tax incentives for renovating a historic building.

Elaine Packard devoted 30 years to Nova, first as a volunteer and eventually as principal, many in the Mann building. She says she fought off numerous efforts by the district to close it and begged them to paint and maintain it. But it never got the attention and resources of Garfield High School across the street. 'ꀜI love the building and I understand all of its limitations,'ꀝ she says. The wooden floors may creak and the windows are drafty, the bathrooms designed for elementary sized children, but it has 'ꀜlarge hallways and big windows and is a warm place for students to hang out'ꀝ — qualities you don'ꀙt find in modern school buildings, says Packard.

Packard recently walked the halls of her former stomping ground 'ꀜto take in memories before it closes.'ꀝ Now retired, she would be willing to help transform the building into a community space.

Various people in the neighborhood have visions for the building. 'ꀜThe closing of Nova will create a huge, huge void in activity,'ꀝ says Merica Whitehall, assistant director of the Children's Literacy Project at Seattle University and CD resident for the past 14 years. 'ꀜIn light of the violence that has been happening in that particular area in the past couple of years, the best thing to do to deter that is to create community space.'ꀝ

Whitehall offers a number of examples of successfully converted schools buildings, including the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center and El Centro de la Raza in Beacon Hill. She suggests bringing in programs like Yesler 2014 Yesler 2014, the summer employment program sponsored by the Housing Authority in 2008 that taught urban planning to middle and high schoolers. Perhaps the University of Washington could install a legal clinic or a small affordable health clinic, suggests Whitehall. Or Seattle Tilth could come in and make us of the school'ꀙs 'ꀜfantastic greenhouse'ꀝ and vegetable garden or develop a pea patch. Whitehall also knows many local CD artists 'ꀜwho would love a space to practice their art and teach their art the community.'ꀝ

'ꀜWhy not give kids a positive place to go in their community,'ꀝ she asks, instead of 'ꀜclosing Horace Mann and creating a space for people to be up to no good?'ꀝ

Those ideas for adaptive reuse of the old schoolhouse are exactly the wrong kind of uses for the building, says local property owner Ron Rubin. He urges the city to 'ꀜresist the temptation to turn [Mann] into low-income housing or drug counseling'ꀝ or any use that'ꀙs not financially 'ꀜsustainable,'ꀝ but instead focus on a commercial venture that will 'ꀜmake it an anchor in the neighborhood'ꀝ akin to the Wallingford Center, another former school turned into retail space. Rubin has a vested interest in the neighborhood; he owns a 12-unit apartment building across the street from Nova and a series of garages nearby that he wants to convert to micro-businesses. Though he'ꀙs personally not interested in purchasing the building, he believes 'ꀜthe minute it'ꀙs closed, it should go up for sale.'ꀝ There'ꀙs no doubt in his mind that an empty Mann building will attract 'ꀜtrash, vandalism, graffiti, drug dealing, and prostitution.'ꀝ

'ꀜAs the landlord, I think the school district has an obligation to the community. My fear is that they are not going to uphold their responsibility as a property owner and there is going to be a blight. It could easily sit vacant for two-three years.'ꀝ He continues, 'ꀜThe city spent 10 years and $115 million on the Garfield project, yet there is nothing in that neighborhood that encourages pedestrianism or discourages drug-dealing. They should protect the investment they made in Garfield and the community at large. All the pieces fit together.'ꀝ

Neighborhood District Coordinator Ted Devina is also concerned about Mann joining the ranks of empty buildings in the hood. 'ꀜIf you do have a vacant space and it becomes boarded up, it does impact the neighboring space.'ꀝ Devina adds that Mann "is a prime piece of property. Cherry Street is a straight shot downtown. Right across from it is Garfield High School. MLK is to your east, and you have Catfish Corner and other nice places to eat, and a lot of East African businesses along the Cherry corridor.'ꀝ

Devina mentions the MLK School in Madison Valley whose closure in 2007 was followed by community discussions on how to use the building. 'ꀜThey formed a school use advisory committee (SUAC) to determine best use, to work with people in the neighborhood to define what people wanted and to engage the community.'ꀝ Out of this arose the Citizens for a Community Center at MLK which plans to create a nonprofit and turn the school to community use.

'ꀜThe worst possible thing would be to just have a big vacant building there. That'ꀙs about one of the worst places in town you can do that,'ꀝ says Jordan Royer, former urban planning consultant and staffer for the City of Seattle, and current city council candidate. Once while helping with a community clean-up of the Nova grounds, Royer recalls, 'ꀜwe found a shotgun in the bushes, found needles and condoms. You understand what the danger is there; you can'ꀙt leave it abandoned.'ꀝ

Royer would also like to see the building put to some sort of a community or commercial use — something to 'ꀜput eyes on the street'ꀝ and deter crime. He recommends that community members 'ꀜget together around the table and start brainstorming, and ask 'ꀘWhat does everyone want to see here?'ꀙ And then ask how to do it, and then get money.'ꀝ

One point almost everyone agrees on is that Mann should not be left empty for long.

'ꀜPutting properties in mothballs is not always the worst thing. It'ꀙs better than being demolished,'ꀝ says Larry Kreisman of Historic Seattle. His organization aims to preserve historic buildings by facilitating purchases or leases for repurposing, or buying the buildings itself. Kreisman cites among Historic Seattle'ꀙs most notable projects the Queen Anne High School, which was converted into condos (ironically Queen Anne is now in need of a high school once again); and the vast Good Shepherd Center, a 1906 former Catholic shelter for young women that now houses various nonprofits, schools, the Wallingford Senior Center, Seattle Tilth, live/work artist lofts, and a performance space in the former chapel. 'ꀜIt has been very successful as a community building. There is no reason the Mann building couldn'ꀙt be used the same way,'ꀝ says Kreisman. Historic Seattle plans to look into the Mann building as a possible project.

The Phinney and University Heights community centers crop up frequently as templates for how to successfully adapt former school buildings. But they are also prime examples of the school district being shortsighted or shortchanging itself, according to Chris Jackins, longtime public school activist and founder of the Seattle Committee to Save Schools. Jackins believes the district has a history of selling its properties under market value, depriving the district of resources that could go back into the schools, or selling properties it may need later (he cites the sale of Queen Anne High School is a main example of this). Asked what he would like to see done with Mann, Jackins replies not surprisingly, 'ꀜKeep the building open for Nova.'ꀝ In fact, he helped organize an appeal of the recent closures that is still in the courts. Nova'ꀙs claim is the district failed to properly notify the public about the proposed closure by placing notices in papers as required by law.

Nora Wheat, one of the Nova parents who signed onto the appeal, offered a tour of the building a few weeks before it is closed. Students gathered in the large hallways between classes. Chloe Collyer, a Nova senior recalled the long history of the building fondly, 'ꀜThere'ꀙs something really nice about when you walk on the floor, and the floor creaks.'ꀝ It'ꀙs a reminder she said, that 'ꀜhundreds of little feet walked on it.'ꀝ

As for Wheat'ꀙs vision for the building: 'ꀜThe Phinney Community Center or University Heights, or the Good Shepherd Center, I think would be a better use.'ꀝ She adds sadly, 'ꀜExcept, of course, for it to house a funky school that needs a home.'ꀝ


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors