Threatened landmark with powerful connections

An obscure 92-year-old Bainbridge Island school building, facing demolition, has ties to the birth of Bill Gates' alma mater.
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This old Moran School building on Bainbridge Island is slated for demolition.

An obscure 92-year-old Bainbridge Island school building, facing demolition, has ties to the birth of Bill Gates' alma mater.

Is a building a landmark if no one can see it?

I got to thinking about that when I read about plans to demolish a nearly century-old, unique structure on Bainbridge Island, a four-story building on Manitou Park Boulevard on the island's north end, not far from Rolling Bay, a community that features a post office and Bainbridge's iconic Bay Hay & Feed nursery.

The building was constructed in 1918 for the Moran School, Bainbridge's first private school founded by Frank Moran. It was part of the school's expansion on a 40-acre parcel and it contained dormitories, a library, science labs, and a theater. There are few structures like it on the once rural, now suburban island. I'd never heard of it nor seen it, even though my parents lived nearby for some 35 years. It's located on a dead-end lane that is marked as having no turn around in a quiet, affluent waterfront neighborhood. You would never know about it unless you had reason to go there, and you have to travel a bit of a maze to get there.

But the empty building, in visibly deteriorated condition and fenced off by a chain-link fence, does have a fascinating background. Will Shopes, chair of Bainbridge's Historic Preservation Commission, told the Kitsap Sun that it was a "terribly significant" part of the island's history. The building is currently owned by Soundcare, which runs the Messenger House nursing home nearby. They've applied for a demo permit, and preservationists are mobilizing to find other alternatives.

The building's background is quite interesting. The Moran School was founded in 1914 as a prep school for wealthy Seattle sons. An island, presumably, was a place you could stick a boy and get his attention in an isolated environment designed to educate his mind and develop his character. (Mossback's own parents once considered exiling their son in this way, but he promised to mend his ways. A stint at an educational Alcatraz has a way of focussing the mind.)

The school was situated on Skiff Point which, like nearby Manitou Beach, has a grand view of Seattle to the east and Mount Rainier to the south. According to a directory of America's private schools published in the 1920s, the Moran School was noted for being "modern in its tendencies, not because of adherence to any theory, but because of its interest in the boy as the unit. Administrative and executive capacity is developed in the boys by giving them responsible work to do in connection with the administration of the school and the school plant."

When the Moran school later closed, it became a military-style school for young men who wanted to attend Annapolis or become Coast Guard Officers, called the Puget Sound Naval Academy. According to the Kitsap Sun, the building was later a movie theater, and has sat empty for most of the last two decades since a film was shot there, Farewell to Harry.

But here's another interesting connection. The school's founder, Frank Moran, founded another school in Seattle to become a feeder for his Bainbridge school. It was launched in 1919 in Denny-Blaine and named the Moran-Lakeside School. Yes, that's the school that eventually became the famous Lakeside School, Seattle's premier prep academy and alma mater of billionaires, including Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. So, if it weren't for Frank Moran and Bainbridge's Moran School, there would have been no Lakeside, and who knows, maybe no Microsoft.

It is tough for communities to hang onto their history even if their landmarks are well known, harder if they're somewhat obscure and off the tourist track. But perhaps the Lakeside connection might give ideas to those who seek to preserve it: perhaps support could be found for saving it beyond the island, which some say treasures its "ruins", especially among people who value how an obscure structure that few know about has ties to some of the beneficiaries of the kind of independent "modern" private education the building embodies.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.