Northgate Elementary demolition poses questions of preservation versus equity

May 28, 2021, 11:02 AM | Updated: Jun 2, 2021, 3:27 pm

A fence that went up last week around part of the grounds at Northgate Elementary is drawing attention to Seattle Public Schools’ plans to demolish the 1956 structure. But neighbors and alumni are organizing to stop the demolition, which they say will also eliminate a popular community playfield.

Shaun Hubbard, who attended the school from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, told KIRO Radio that four generations of her family have depended on the open space adjacent to the school. Northgate Elementary is west of I-5 at 11725 1st Avenue Northeast.

“My sister was even a cheerleader at Northgate Elementary,” Hubbard said. “She sent me an old photo of herself with a big ‘N’ on her T-shirt.”

Plans call for a new school to be built atop the playfield, and the 1956 school to then be demolished. Hubbard says a new playground planned as a replacement for the playfield is much smaller and far different in character than the space her family has enjoyed for more than 60 years.

“Everyone’s used it, it’s like a village green,” Hubbard said. “Basically, that new building will go on top of that field.”

Hubbard says that plans for Northgate Elementary came as something of a surprise last summer, and the process by which the decision to demolish the school was made was less than transparent.

“That’s one of our grievances … from the very beginning, [demolition and replacement] was part of the levy process in 2019,” Hubbard said. “They had planned to demolish the school way back before the levy even existed.”

“We don’t know why they made the decision” Hubbard continued. “They say that the school needs renovation, [and that] it can’t be brought up to code. I doubt that’s true because not too far from there is Cedar Park Elementary. That is also a Paul Thiry-designed school and that was successfully saved and remodeled, and it’s a great school today.”

Last year, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board declined to add Northgate Elementary to the city’s historic register.

That decision, says Shaun Hubbard, doesn’t make any sense.

The school itself was determined by the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation in 2012 to be eligible for the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. The architect for the structure was Paul Thiry, who designed a number of schools and prominent buildings in Seattle, including the original MOHAI in Montlake (now demolished) and many distinctive residences.

Thiry, who oversaw design for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, also was responsible for the distinctive roofline that was saved as part of the redevelopment of what’s now Climate Pledge Arena.

In a letter dated May 21, 2021, State Architectural Historian Michael Houser wrote:

The building is historically significant for its direct association to the growth and development of the Seattle School District during the post WWII period. Additionally the building also serves as an example of the work of noted architect Paul Thiry, whom many consider the father of modernism in Washington State. Over the course of his career, Thiry designed just four elementary schools (Duwamish Grade School, 1943; Our Lady of the Lake Elementary School, 1948; Northgate Elementary School, 1956; and Cedar Park Elementary School, 1959). Northgate serves as an example of Thiry’s work during his mid-career and offers insight into his thought process regarding the design of educational facilities.

Shaun Hubbard says the 2012 eligibility didn’t come up when the school district and the City of Seattle were deciding the fate of Northgate Elementary.

“There is no mention of this prior designation” — technically, a determination of eligibility — “in any of the Seattle School District’s records, nor as part of the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board’s discussion of this project when voting to deny landmark status in March 2020,” Hubbard wrote in an email.

“The School Board knows that neighbors and ex-alumni are not happy,” Hubbard wrote, “since we have voiced our concerns from the beginning of the public input process. However, dealing with them has been a disappointing and frustrating experience.”

KIRO Radio began reaching out to Seattle Public Schools for comment late last Thursday, May 27. On Wednesday, June 2, Rachel Nakanishi said via email that no one was available for an interview, and provided a long statement that said, among other things, “renovating the existing building would be very challenging given the concrete construction methods utilized.”

Jeff Murdock was at the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board meeting in March 2020 when the board opted to not nominate Northgate Elementary. He works for the nonprofit advocacy group Historic Seattle, and he’s studied Paul Thiry and Thiry-designed buildings around the city. He says you can’t just pick and choose which examples of a great architect’s work that you save.

“The Northgate school is really one chapter in the body of [Thiry’s] work,” Murdock told KIRO Radio. “Cedar Park school is a beautiful work with a great expression of thin shell concrete. But you know, Northgate school is a different type of concrete construction, so it really shows his evolution and his development as a practitioner.”

School preservation debates often bring out a lot of emotion, but listening to the audio from the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board hearing from March 2020 – right before the pandemic really kicked in – it seems like there was a little more to the discussion than just the merits of the school as a historic landmark.

Linda Sinni, a teacher at Northgate Elementary who’s also the parent of a student there, described the preservation debate as a matter of values — that choosing to preserve an old school building would be, in effect, a slight to kids who deserve a new building.

“I believe that it really comes down to where your values are,” Sinni can be heard saying on the tape. “Do you value this white man who created this building roughly 69 years ago, that some people want to landmark but that does not serve as a landmark for the people that are going to use it, or do you value the education of vulnerable marginalized population of children?”

And Sinni’s wasn’t the only comment that seemed to apply a social justice and equity argument in favor of tearing down the school. Northgate Elementary principal Deirdre Fauntleroy made similar remarks, as did a number of other commenters.

But, as landmark board member Manish Chalana pointed out toward the end of the meeting, social justice criteria aren’t part of the preservation ordinance, and don’t officially factor into decisions about nominating landmarks.

“Our job here is not to address equity, we cannot,” Chalana said. “We could, but it’s not our job.”

Equity conversations are rightfully taking place everywhere to address long-standing disparities, but what happened in the Northgate Elementary discussion in March 2020 might be something relatively new in historic preservation.

Murdock of Historic Seattle says that social justice and equity issues are, in fact, coming up more often in public meetings about landmarks.

“I think it’s increasingly common and increasingly discussed,” Murdock said. “It’s not really part of the landmarks ordinance, but it should be. It should be a question of how we look at what’s significant. We have community members on the other side of the social justice and equity question who are trying to preserve their sites” — that is, working to preserve buildings that might have been overlooked in the past.

Other local preservationists contacted expressed similar sentiments, and many pointed to a related effort already underway by 4Culture, the countywide arts and heritage agency. The project, called “Beyond Integrity,” is about addressing equity in deciding which places to save, and increasing diversity and representation on things like landmark boards and staff of historic preservation organizations and agencies.

Though Northgate Elementary’s prospects don’t look good at the moment, Murdock is hopeful about other projects.

“Honestly, I felt like this building could have been adaptively reused or come through a pretty serious rehabilitation,” Murdock lamented. “[It] could have provided a great school that would speak to the history of both the architecture as well as the history of the school itself.”

Bottom line, Murdock believes that landmarks — the preservation of which can often work like a catalyst to revive a community — can be key to addressing race and social justice issues.

“Preservation actually has a role in promoting this discussion,” Murdock said.

The City of Seattle will hold a land use appeal hearing on Monday, June 14, though the appeals being reviewed are not based on the structure’s landmark status. Hubbard and the grassroots group she’s helping organize plan to attend.

Anyone interested in learning more about the effort to save Northgate Elementary can reach Shaun Hubbard at [email protected].

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

Feliks Banel

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Northgate Elementary demolition poses questions of preservation versus equity