Patterns of Change: Reading the history of Queen Anne schools

West Queen Anne School
West Queen Anne School

Local historians focus on individual achievements, buildings or events while often ignoring patterns of change or the relationship of those patterns to international and regional circumstances.  Interestingly, an overview of public school history in our neighborhood reveals some of those patterns.

The earliest Queen Anne schools were constructed within a year of one another.  The first one  — called “shack school” and known as the Queen Anne School — opened in 1889.  It served grades one to three, while the older children trudged to Belltown for another year until Mercer School opened.

Mercer School, the first of Queen Anne’s throw-away schools, was built at the northwest corner of Fourth Ave. N. and Valley St.  It opened in 1890 not far from where Thomas D. Mercer built his home and farmed.  The large building featured a bell tower over a projecting front pavilion that probably housed offices for the staff.   According to Queen Anne – Community on the Hill — the source of most of the information reported here — the school was immediately overcrowded.  The need for both schools, one at the top of the hill and the other at the bottom, is a sign that an important shift of school-age children and their families from the downtown core was well underway almost ten years before the big Seattle boom following Klondike Gold Rush.  In 1892, the school district replaced the Queen Anne School shack with a brick building of the same name on the full block at W. Galer between 5th and 6th W.  Later renamed West Queen Anne Elementary and converted following its 1981 closure to condominiums, the building and its additions stands as a reminder of the impact of ‘white flight.’   As we’ll see, it was not alone.  The Mercer School closed in 1931 at the start of the Great Depression, while the building served a number of functions (training school district janitors being the last one) until 1948 when it was torn down.

The Depression of 1893 slowed the growth so much that new schools weren’t required until the turn of the 20th century.   The Interbay School opened in 1901, serving Magnolia and Queen Anne children until 1930 at 16th and W. Barrett on a soggy site that is still in public hands.  Just a year later, the Warren Avenue School occupied the block between Harrison and Republican Streets.  That wooden building triggered a spate of neighborhood schools just as the city began its rapid expansion from a population of 80,000 people in 1900 to nearly 300,000 in 1910.  Both John Hay, completed in 1905 on the eastern edge of the hill, and the Queen Anne School’s temporary 1905 northern annex were wooden buildings, as was Franz H. Coe Elementary School which opened in 1907 to replace the annex.  These four schools — Interbay, Warren, Hay and Coe — and their accretions were the clear result of populations pressures on the city and the easy access streetcars provided after 1902 to the central city core on four routes.

QA High School, ca. 1909 viewed from today’s John Hay School playground

The big white (terra cotta) elephant on the top of the hill, Queen Anne High School, and her offspring tell much of the story.   Completed in 1909 as the population boom of the Klondike Gold Rush era crested and in the year Seattle came of age at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the school served a rather large catch basin including parts of downtown and all of Magnolia.  It opened with a population of about 600 students, and like the surrounding neighborhood, had two important population crests.  The first followed a burst of childbirths as the Great Depression eased, and ended with the beginning of World War II in 1941.  At that high point the population reached about 2200 youth.  The second crest followed the incredible boom of the post-war period when birthrates nationwide skyrocketed.  The growth at the high school demanded the addition of a gym in 1962, but in 1964, McClure Middle School opened, draining from Queen Anne all the 7th and 8th graders and dropping the population from about 2600 to about 1800 children — where it held steady until white flight hit in the early 1970’s.  The decade from 1971 to the school’s closure in 1981 witnessed a steady decline to fewer than 1000 students.  When they transferred to Franklin High School the following year, that ended nearly a hundred years of all primary and secondary education happening in neighborhood schools.

The opening of McClure Middle School in 1964, while mapping to national demographic changes in society,  also keyed to changes in educational policy that favored physically separating young teens from older ones and giving the younger children a very different learning environment.  Ironically, the opening across the city (and the nation) of middle schools took pressure off the high schools and made room for growth just when it was no longer needed.

The decline of inner-city neighborhoods both in population and the quality of life is easily traced in the closure in 1981 of the high school, West Queen Anne, and North Queen Anne which had opened in 1913.  As a result, by 1975 Queen Anne had lost six schools and was ready to tear down the emptied ones.

Mercer School
Mercer School

Mercer and Interbay seem to have been ditched as the result of poor planning.  Warren Avenue was traded in for the Coliseum (Key Area).  The (misguided?) passion for urban renewal reflected in clearing a huge swath of Uptown for the Century 21 World’s Fair may have also been a factor, since it demolished the homes of many students.  Urban renewal can’t take all the blame, for by the time of its demolition Warren Avenue was serving primarily special-needs children.  As for West Queen Anne and the high school, it took the work of folks at Historic Seattle who value the community’s historic fabric to save them.  The last building, North Queen Anne Elementary at First West and West Florentia, remains an orphan with no permanent uses having been found for it.

Unfortunately, there was little to cheer about in the decade following those school closures.  Quickly, though, new schools were planned and opened, making the throw-away policy seem shortsighted at best.  By 2010, we’d moved John Hay to a new location, opened another elementary school in its old location, and a new high school at Seattle Center.  The school-age population had taken off again, and the neighborhood showed new signs of life.

Taken all together then, the opening, closing, use and demolition of neighborhood public schools does follow demographic patterns set by local, national and international history.  It is still disheartening to see that just as we arrive at demographic conclusions about the future, the ground shifts.