In July, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted 7-1 to designate as a landmark a public school with strong ties to Seattle’s Native American community. Supporters thought the school was thus saved from demolition.
Landmarks Preservation Board coordinator Erin Doherty said at the time, “It is rare to demolish a landmark.”
Rare, yes, but not forbidden.
Seattle Public Schools is moving ahead with plans to demolish the 60-year-old school to make way for construction of a new elementary school and middle school. That’s because three months after the landmark designation, the Landmarks Preservation Board voted 7-3 with one abstention to impose “no controls” on the designation, meaning the school district could proceed with plans to demolish the school.
The school, formerly Wilson-Pacific Elementary and Middle School, housed different programs, among them American Indian Heritage School, which at one time offered college courses and had 100 percent high school graduation and college attendance rates.
The school is also located on the site of Licton Spring, which is of historical importance to the Duwamish people; is the site of Native-themed murals by Apache/Haida artist Andrew Morrison; and is the center for afterschool cultural and athletic programs for Seattle’s Native American youth.
The school district and Mahlum Architects plan to save the murals, incorporating the walls into the new buildings; and the middle school grounds will have a ceremonial circle. In addition, Licton Springs K-8—a merger of American Indian Heritage School and a social justice program at another school site—is expected to move to the new school when it is finished in 2017.
But Native education advocates say that’s not enough. They mourn the loss of buildings that have been an important urban Native gathering place. And they fear that the loss continues a pattern that began with the dismantling of American Indian Heritage School, the dispersion of its students to other schools, and the impending relocation of afterschool cultural and athletic programs.
In its February newsletter, the Urban Native Education Alliance reported that its youth programs at the old American Indian Heritage School site—Clear Sky Native Youth Council, Native Warriors basketball program, and a wellness program—would be “displaced,” calling it “history repeating itself time and time again.”
“UNEA continue[s] to stand firm in our opposition to the [Seattle Public Schools’] handling of the demolition. It is a sorrowful time to see the legacy, institutional history and the extermination of our presence being so callously managed.” (UNEA later announced that its programs would move to Nathan Hale High School on February 27.)
Duwamish Tribe Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, great-great-grandniece of the City of Seattle’s namesake, has spoken publicly in opposition to the school’s demolition.
“To have the whole complex erased from the land,” she lamented. “It’s an important place. Licton Springs is part of our traditional grounds. To erase this one little place in this city … Doesn’t ‘landmark preservation’ mean ‘to save’? I question [the preservation board’s] integrity.”
Hansen said the school, as a gathering place for the Native community and the former home of the once very successful American Indian Heritage School, is one of few Native landmarks in the city. Besides those landmarks—among them Chief Seattle Club, Daybreak Star, the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center, and the school—“there’s nothing else in the city,” she said.
Advocates for saving the American Indian Heritage School buildings say renovation would cost $19.1 million; the district plans to spend $71.6 million to build the new middle school and $44.7 million on the new elementary school.
But the district says the new schools are needed to accommodate student population growth—the schools will accommodate 1,650 students, according to district documents. Wilson-Pacific accommodated 1,347 in its peak enrollment year.
And there’s Wilson-Pacific’s condition. Enrollment declined through the 1970s, reaching just over 550 students by the 1977-78 school year. From 1979, on the school was re-purposed for a series of special programs; American Indian Heritage School opened there in 1989. But over the years, the maintenance backlog grew.
In a November 2012 report by its “Problem Solvers” reporting team, KOMO-TV Channel 4 News reported a school “in disrepair with serious safety concerns.” Among the deficiencies: buckled and breaking concrete, floors and ceilings in disrepair, rotting wood in walls, asbestos warnings plastered on pipes, electrical and phone lines dangling in the air.
The school district reported on its website, “Seattle Public Schools looked at several options to develop the property that retained a portion of the landmark building. Unfortunately, none of those options met the educational specifications. Accordingly, it has been determined to be necessary to replace the existing building with a new structure.”
UNEA Wants School Named After Eaglestaff
According to a public notice published by the school district, demolition of Wilson-Pacific is expected to begin in April; construction of the new elementary and middle schools is expected to be completed in March 2017.
Meanwhile, UNEA continues to advocate for the naming of one of the new middle schools after the late Robert Eaglestaff, Minneconjou Lakota, principal of American Indian Heritage School from 1989-1996, its period of greatest success. The school’s association with Eaglestaff figured into its designation as a landmark; at the time, Doherty, the preservation board coordinator, said the school met two of six criteria for landmark designation: it is “associated in a significant way with the life of a person important in the history of the City” (Eaglestaff); it is “associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community.”
In a December 5 letter to UNEA, Seattle Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland wrote that the district will “give serious consideration to your naming request … I do hear your request and rationale that [the] site itself has significance as a Native American gathering point; and Robert Eaglestaff did much to preserve and develop Native American heritage at this site.”