Schoolhouse latest victim in Bellevue’s failure to preserve landmarks
When a 128-year-old building in Bellevue was demolished a month ago, only a few people noticed that the structure was actually one of the oldest schools on the east side of Lake Washington.
The Northup Schoolhouse was on 116th Avenue NE, just north of 520 and just east of 405, on the campus of The Little School, a private elementary.
It was built in 1891 by local residents who joined together to create School District 96. The need for a school symbolized how much the community was growing and changing, and thinking about ways to educate its youngest citizens, as well as provide a gathering place for public events.
The building was a classic wooden schoolhouse with a prominent bell tower that served the community for nearly 50 years. In 1940, a family named Grandrud bought the school and removed the belltower, and turned the building into a residence. In 1985, the Grandrud’s sold the property to The Little School, who had moved onto adjacent property in 1968.
“Northup” is the name of road that runs from the Yarrow Bay area (near the border of Kirkland and Bellevue) east toward 405 and then south into the industrial area of Bellevue. According to a history of schools in Bellevue, “the Northup name was derived from the James Northup family, who settled not far from Yarrow Bay in 1877.”
The Little School
The Little School says that they needed space on their 10-acre campus for a new multipurpose facility to serve their 165 students, and they decided to tear down the old Northup Schoolhouse to make room.
Julie Kalmus is Head of School for The Little School. She wrote in an email, “The Little School made numerous efforts to relocate the … structure. However, we were told that due to its remodeled condition, there were not any parties that were interested.”
Kalmus didn’t respond to further inquiries seeking more details about efforts to relocate the building, such as who the structure was offered to and under what conditions.
Brian Westcott is a descendant of the Dunn family, who also settled in the area near the Northup Schoolhouse in the 1870s. He’s been in contact with The Little School in the past, and shared the history he’s researched over the years.
“I had provided them with the family history that’s pretty comprehensive regarding that school and the Dunn family and all that went on there at the turn of the century, and I’d offered to come back and speak with them,” Westcott said. “We’d visited a few times and got photographs of the outside of the school, but I hadn’t heard anything back from them. I was kind of surprised. Being a school, I figured they’d want to have some history.”
Westcott didn’t learn of the demolition, or of any efforts to relocate Northup Schoolhouse until it was too late.
“Being a building tradesperson, I would have at least would have loved to have gone in and captured some of the elements some doors, some flooring whatever some pieces of history before it was sent to the scrapyard,” Westcott said.
How Northup got tagged for demolition
Liz Stead, Land Use Director for the City of Bellevue, says The Little School followed the rules for seeking a demolition permit in the city, including public notice and public meetings. The part of the process that determined whether or not the building was worthy of being preserved involved The Little School or their consultants checking a database maintained by the state of Washington.
“This building was identified in the database as the Northup Schoolhouse, however, it was determined not eligible for historic significance,” Stead said. “It did not meet the criteria of either there having been a historic event in the building or … significant persons associated with it. There were no distinctive characteristics and that would be normally speaking about architectural characteristics. And nor were there any significant achievements in the building in the last 50 years.”
What was surprising to learn is that the City of Bellevue has no historic preservation ordinance; that is, Bellevue has no certified historic preservation experts on staff to review permit applications, and no city laws that formally address whether or not a particular structure is worthy of preservation.
Here in Washington, that’s very unusual for a city of Bellevue’s size.
How it’s done in other cities
In King County, Seattle has its own ordinance and staff that administer the city landmark register. Unincorporated areas of the county are administered by the King County Landmarks program. Additionally, several small to medium sized cities in King County contract with the county for historic preservation services through what are called “interlocal agreements” or ILAs.
This is true of Kirkland, Redmond, Renton, Sammamish, Woodinville, North Bend, Newcastle, Snoqualmie, Issaquah, Kenmore, Kent, and many others.
Around the state, Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver, and Everett have their own preservation programs. In terms of population, Bellevue is the largest city in the state by far that has no historic preservation program and no interlocal agreement.
There’s also a complicating factor with what Stead said in describing the process that property owners in Bellevue, such as The Little School, are supposed to follow when potentially historic resources are involved.
“The problem with relying on the state database to determine whether there are historic properties in a location in King County is that oftentimes, local properties don’t get surveyed and entered into the state database,” said King County Preservation Planner Todd Scott. “And the ones that are in the state database are generally evaluated for national register eligibility and not local eligibility.”
To put it simply, Bellevue judges all potential historic properties on national criteria, not local criteria. This makes Bellevue different than almost any other community in the state.
There are dozens of landmarks in Seattle and all over King County that qualify as city or county landmarks for their local significance, but that would be unlikely to qualify for the National Register. It appears that somewhere between a third-and-a-half of landmarks in King County qualify only for the local landmark register.
What this means is that because there’s no one at the City of Bellevue with expertise in historic preservation, no historic preservation ordinance in place, and no interlocal agreement with King County, the Northup Schoolhouse – which might have easily qualified as a local landmark, as schoolhouses often do for what they represent and what role they play in a community’s history – fell through the cracks.
How Northup could still be saved
King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci — who is from Bellevue herself — says that in the past, there have been what she calls “fire drills” to try and save particular buildings in Bellevue that were threatened. She’d like to move things to the next level.
“It’s a little presumptuous of me, I have to say, as a King County Councilmember, to say what Bellevue ought to do,” Councilmember Balducci said by phone last week. “But I feel ownership because of my relationship with the city and because I live here. I think it’s time for us to have a conversation so that we get out of ‘emergency response mode,’ and more proactively into identifying the structures we should be preserving and actively doing this.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by historic preservation consultants hired by the City of Bellevue more than 20 years ago. The consultants spent several months preparing an inventory of potential landmarks, and reached the same conclusion as Councilmember Balducci.
“The consultants recommend that the Bellevue Historical Society work with the City of Bellevue and with King County to consider the possibility of an interlocal agreement for the provision of preservation services,” they wrote. “Bellevue has already lost many of its historic properties, and for a city of its size, it is surprising that Bellevue does not have a cultural resources program.”
Now that two decades have passed since those words were written, is there any interest from the City of Bellevue to create their own historic preservation program or to enter into an “interlocal agreement” for preservation services from King County to avoid what happened to the Northup Schoolhouse?
That’s hard to say. Stead wasn’t able to comment, and the city wasn’t able to make an elected official available to answer this bigger picture question.
Councilmember Claudia Balducci obviously cares about this issue. She says an interlocal agreement is worth exploring, but she also says it’s up to the City of Bellevue to initiate the conversation.
“I know that the county is willing to do so, and it would be up to the city to decide to want to join, but I’m not making that ask through the press,” Balducci said. “I’m just saying that that opportunity is there any time the city wants to take advantage of it.”
It might be up to Bellevue residents to really get this conversation started. Until then, it’s anybody’s guess what other potential local landmarks will fall through Bellevue’s historic preservation cracks.