East Seattle School on northwest Mercer Island was built on land that in 1889 had been platted as "East Seattle" by Charles C. Calkins and William D. Wood (1858-1917). It opened to its first 81 students in 1914, and for many years was the primary center of education on the island. After the 1940 opening of the first Lake Washington floating bridge, Mercer Island's population boomed, and the school became increasingly inadequate. By 1950 it was elementary grades only, and was finally closed in 1982. In 1984 the property was leased by the school district to the Mercer Island Boys and Girls Club, then sold to the organization two years later. In 2007 the club sold it to a developer, who agreed to lease it back to the club for a period of 10 years. Before that term expired, the club moved to new facilities, and for several years the school building stood vacant. In 2017 East Seattle School was deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. After a lengthy study and debate, it was deemed unfeasible to save the building, and in late 2020 its demolition began, making way for residential development.
The Lake, the Island, and the Indigenous People
About 17,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, a huge glacier known as the Puget lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet filled the land between the Cascade and Olympic mountains and reached past today's Olympia. It then receded rather rapidly, leaving behind a number of glacial lakes and carved-out land forms, including Lake Washington and Mercer Island.
There is still debate about when the first humans arrived in what is now the Puget Sound region, but in 2015 stone tools were found near Seattle that were dated to between 10,000 and 12,500 years ago. By the time the first white settlers appeared in the mid-1800s, Lake Washington and its environs had long been part of the ancestral homeland of the Duwamish Tribe. In Chinook Jargon, a trading language that was easier for non-Natives to learn than the Coast Salish dialects spoken in the region, Lake Washington was known as Hyas Chuck, meaning "big water."
The Duwamish name for what is now called Mercer Island is not known, although they did have words describing certain places on the island where specific foodstuffs or useful items, such as cedar bark, could be found. The Duwamish would visit the island to forage, but it is said that they neither lived there nor stayed after dark, believing that it was haunted by an evil spirit. The Treaty of Point Elliott signed in 1855 forced the Duwamish to relinquish more than 54,000 acres of land, including Mercer Island. The 1916 opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal lowered the level of the lake by about nine feet, substantially increasing the island's size, which now measures about five miles long and two miles across at its widest point, encompassing 6.32 square miles.
Thomas Mercer (1813-1898) first came to the Northwest in late 1852 and stayed just long enough to file a 320-acre donation land in Seattle. He returned a few months later with his family and became one of the young settlement's best-known pioneers. Speaking at a July 4th celebration in 1854 that he hosted on his property, Mercer proposed that Hyas Chuck be called Lake Washington, and the much smaller Tenas Chuck to its west (where his claim was located) be called Lake Union. Both names were approved by a vote of those present, and it was suggested by "a prominent citizen" that the large island in Lake Washington be named after Mercer (Gellatly, 7). When the first federal survey of land in the region was completed in 1860, "Mercer's Island" was on it, and soon was known simply as "Mercer Island." (Note: There is an alternate, minority view that the island was named after Thomas Mercer's brother, Asa (1839-1917), of "Mercer Girls" fame.)
In 1861 the federal government opened Mercer Island up for homesteading, but there was land aplenty on the mainland, and little need or incentive to settle in a place that was accessible only by boat. The first recorded claim on the island was on its eastern shore, filed in 1876 by Vitus Schmid (1849-1924), a wagon builder, and John Wenzler, a cobbler. They left the island after a falling tree destroyed their cabin, but Schmid returned two years later to take up another claim and build a cabin. After a successful 11-year fight with a lumber company that disputed his ownership, he and his family finally moved onto the island in 1890.
In the meantime, others were coming, including Gardiner Proctor (1829-1898) and his Native American wife, Ellen (1843-1913), who arrived in 1884 and claimed waterfront land on the northwest shore, facing the rapidly growing Seattle. The following year they were joined by Charles L. Olds, his wife Agnes (1836-1917), and their two children. Over the next several years more individuals and families trickled onto the island, but the mainland remained the primary destination for newcomers.
The Creation of East Seattle
Most of the early non-Native settlers on Mercer island in the 1880s were logging off its old-growth timber or otherwise wresting a livelihood from the still-wild land. One man, Charles Cicero Calkins (1850-1948), had different, and more extravagant, plans. Calkins, who preferred to be known as "C.C.," had practiced law in Wisconsin, lived briefly in Denver, then came to Seattle in 1887 at the age of 37 with only $300 to his name. Within 10 days he had bought 21,000 acres on $19,000 credit, quickly sold some of the land to pay off the debt, and ended up with property worth more than $170,000.
In 1888 Calkins and business partner William D. Wood (1858-1917), a future Seattle mayor, purchased land on the northwest portion of Mercer Island, including Gardiner Proctor's original claim. On December 11 that year they recorded a plat for a town they called "East Seattle." What they had in mind was the creation of a non-industrial, high-class residential community that would be the center of island life. Although never formally incorporated, East Seattle became Mercer Island's first town and commercial center and the site of its first church, library, post office, restaurant, general store, and official school.
Anchoring the community was the ornate Calkins Hotel, completed in 1889. To carry people and supplies to the island, Calkins commissioned a 78-foot steamboat, immodestly named the C. C. Calkins, which featured a steam calliope to entertain passengers. It ran regularly to East Seattle, 13 times a day, from a dock on land owned by Calkins in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood, just a mile and a half distant.
At some point William Wood dropped out of the picture, and Calkins's ambitions were struck down by personal tragedies and a national financial meltdown. He and his wife, Nellie, had lost a newborn daughter in 1884. In June 1889 his real estate office in downtown Seattle was destroyed in the Great Seattle Fire. In 1890 Mrs. Calkins and the couple's surviving young daughter, Ruby, took a trip back East by train. The girl fell from a hotel window in Atlanta, Georgia, and was killed. While his grief-stricken wife was returning home alone, the family's mansion on the north shore of the island burned to the ground, and in 1891 the couple divorced. The final straw was the financial Panic of 1893 and the brutal economic depression that followed. Tourism and development on the island came to a near-halt.
Devastated by events, C. C. Calkins left the area and played no further part in the growth of the Mercer Island community. His hotel stood vacant for several years, then was used as a school for delinquent boys, a sanatorium for drug addicts and alcoholics, and a boarding house, before burning down in 1908. But although Calkins was not around to see it, his vision for Mercer Island and East Seattle would, in the fullness of time, largely come to fruition.
In 1888 Charles Olds and his family established Mercer Island's first school, using space in a warehouse at the Calkins Landing ferry dock, about 1,000 feet south of what today is Interstate-90's eastbound Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge. There was as yet no school district or tax funding and only about eight or nine students. Classes were taught by Clarissa Colman, daughter of King County Commissioner James Colman (1832-1906), and later by Alla Olds (1875-1955), daughter of Charles and Agnes Olds.
The first official school building, formally called the East Seattle School District School, was constructed in 1890 on land donated by Calkins. Known to all as "the little white schoolhouse," it was located in what is now part of Secret Park, and would serve the northern portion of the island for 24 years. In 1890 the small Allview Heights School was started on an acre of property farther south (now the site of the Mercer Island Library) that was donated by the pioneering Schmid family, but it closed after five years due to a lack of students. The one-room McGilvra School, serving only grades one to four, opened early in the 1900s in the north-central part of the island, and in 1912 Barnabie School was built to serve children in the northeastern section. There was also a small school on the southern, less-populated part of the island, which in 1918 would be replaced by Lakeview School. Renamed Sunnybeam School in 1957, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and is still in operation today (2021) as a preschool.
Another early Mercer Island learning institution was founded by Major Cicero Newell (1840-1913) and his wife, Emma (1848-1917), who ran a residential school in Seattle for neglected and parentless children. In 1902 or 1903, when enrollment exceeded capacity, the couple rented the Calkins Hotel from its new owner, Eugene Lawson, and moved their school there. In 1903 the Seattle school district issued bonds to buy the Calkins homestead, located on the island's northeast corner, and in 1904 the Newells moved 30 boys and 10 girls to a tent-camp on the site while two schoolhouses and dormitories were built. This would become known as the Luther Burbank Parental School and is now the site of Luther Burbank Park.
By 1912 there were a total of almost 100 school-age children on the island, most of them living within the boundaries of East Seattle. A road link to the mainland to the west was still almost a decade away, but the population was growing nonetheless. It was time for a single, larger consolidated school that could accommodate the anticipated influx of new students.
Building a New School
The beginnings of East Seattle School are not well-documented, but it is known that in 1914 the James K. Carr Construction Company completed construction on a new, two-story school building. It was located on land within the boundaries of the original East Seattle plat on a site that was bordered on the north by SE 28th Street, on the south by SE 30th Street, on the west by 63rd Avenue SE, and on the east by West Mercer Way (the original street names were different). In 1959 the school district obtained property east of SE 63rd Street and that street was vacated between 28th and 30th Avenues SE. This addition resulted in an irregular-shaped, 2.87-acre site.
While there is no architect of record, at least one source credits the school's design to Seattle architect Harold Ginnold (1886-1959). Others say the school's design bears resemblances to several Seattle schools designed by Edgar Blair (1871-1924), who started as a draftsman for the Seattle School District in 1908 and served as the district's chief architect from 1910 to 1918. But there were significant differences, too. The Blair-designed schools were in eclectic style, which incorporates a mixture of elements from previous historical styles. East Seattle School, on the other hand, falls into what is characterized as Mission Revival style. While also built of reinforced concrete, it has no brick veneer. Also, Blair's Seattle school buildings had wood-framed hip roofs, in which all sides slope downward to the walls. East Seattle School had a flat, reinforced-concrete roof.
East Seattle School: Original Details
East Seattle School was oriented in a roughly north-south direction of the property. The building's structural elements were poured-in-place reinforced concrete, including the foundations, exterior walls, floors, and roof. The exterior walls were faced with light-colored stucco, with a few square- and diamond-shaped details cast into the concrete, which were later painted in a contrasting color. Etched into the concrete on the exterior of the first floor were three continuous horizontal bands, creating an architectural effect called rustication. The exterior walls of both the north and south wings projected out somewhat from the central portion, except where the building's main entrance was the dominant feature.
The west-facing center section, where the main entrance was located, measured 46 feet by 44 feet, and the two identical classroom wings to the north and south were both 34 feet by 50 feet. There were four classrooms on the first floor and two on the second, in addition to two activity rooms. A projecting, two-story arch over the main-entry vestibule was covered by a hipped, clay-tiled roof, a typical Mission Revival detail. A continuous cast-concrete, stepped parapet of varying heights rimmed the roof; over the two classroom wings it rose to gentle peaks, while over the main entrance on the building's west side its outline was curvilinear, also typical of Mission Revival style.
The school building was completed and equipped in 1914, and in September that year took in its first 81 students, spread across nine grades. About two month later, the original "little white schoolhouse" burned to the ground, and until 1950, when a new school was built in a more central location in the Mercer Crest neighborhood, East Seattle School served as the island's primary center of education.
The school's physical structure remained the same until the 1930s, but sometime before 1937 two shed-like structures were added, one to the north classroom wing and one to the south wing. Both sheds had concrete exterior walls and steeply pitched, wood-framed peaked roofs with deep gable overhangs. Sources indicate that these were originally used as covered play areas. A 1937 tax record photo indicates that the shed structure on the north was partially open-air, with a series of large openings on its north end. It remained in use as a storage area until the school's demolition.
In 1938 the federal Works Project Administration provided funds to build a gymnasium on the south end of the building. It is not clear from available records whether this was added to the existing shed or replaced it. After the gymnasium was completed, the building appears to have remained unchanged for the next 50 years.
Rapid population growth following construction of the first Lake Washington floating bridge created a need for more schools. Six -- four elementary, a junior high, and a high school -- were built on Mercer Island between 1950 and 1960.
By the early 1980s the situation had changed. Enrollment had declined, and the fate of East Seattle School as a school was definitively settled in 1981, when the Mercer Island School Board adopted a comprehensive and sweeping reorganization plan. Under the plan there would be four reconfigured elementary schools -- two (Lakeridge and Mercer Crest) for grades one through six, and two (West Mercer and Island Park) for kindergarten through sixth grade. A single middle school, Islander, would serve seventh and eighth grades (later adding sixth grade as well). All ninth- through twelfth-grade students would be consolidated at Mercer Island High School. A report on the plan in The Seattle Times said, "The old East Seattle School at the west end of the island and Tarywood School at the south end will no longer be needed" (Reorganization ...").
A Second Life
In 1982 East Seattle School and its grounds were leased by the Mercer Island School District to the Boys and Girls Club (Club), and in 1986 ownership of the building and property was transferred to the Club. In 1990 the 1938 gym on the south end of the building was demolished and the Club built a new gymnasium in its place. Unlike the sheds added in the 1930s, this addition reflected the Mission Revival influences of the primary building.
In 2007, the Club sold the property to Mercer Island residents Michael and Billie Jo O'Brien for $6 million, well above the appraised value at the time. The Club was granted a 10- or 12-year (sources vary), dollar-a-year lease for the continued use of the buildings and grounds, and there were plans for creating playfields for Little League and T-Ball. Although these plans also called for the eventual demolition of the school, it was agreed that no such changes to the property would be made for 10 years. As to what would then happen, O'Brien told the Mercer Island Reporter, "Ideally we would keep it as a park, but we’ll determine that when we get there" ("East Seattle School Is Sold").
Before the term of the lease was up, the Club determined that East Seattle School property no longer fit its needs. In consultation with the City of Mercer Island and with the participation of private investors, in 2009 and 2010 a new Boys and Girls Club facility was built on the campus of Mercer Island High School. For the next decade, East Seattle School sat vacant, used if at all only for storage, the building deteriorating further and the grounds becoming overgrown and strewn with debris.
Preservation or Demolition?
Controversy over the fate of the East Seattle School building and property began as early as 2004, three years before the sale of the property by the Club, and was heated from day one. According to a censure resolution passed by the Mercer Island Historical Society in August 2007, the Mercer Island City Manager, City Council, and staff had in 2004 endorsed a proposal in which "a local group of sports promoters" ("Resolution") would combine with the Boys and Girls Club to build a new Club facility on the high school campus (which was completed in 2010). The resolution stated that the proposal also called for the demolition of East Seattle School, and it censured the city manager, council, and staff for "BLATANT DISREGARD of Mercer Island's proud and noble heritage by facilitating the destruction of the East Seattle School" ("Resolution").
The Boys and Girls Club moved to its new facility in 2010. Despite the East Seattle School property now being essentially abandoned, the owners, now incorporated as OB Mercer Island Properties LLC, adhered to the terms of the original agreement and took no action until 2017, when the dollar-a-year lease with the Club had expired, or nearly so. It then applied for a demolition permit, which set off a protracted debate among the developer, the city, interested citizens, and historic-preservation groups. Objections to the granting of a demolition permit led to public hearings and a decision to have an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) prepared pursuant to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
A lengthy and detailed architectural assessment of the building was prepared, and an even longer and more detailed structural analysis, as well as other reports. The unavoidable conclusion was that much if not all of the entire building was structurally deficient and not code compliant, and that the cost of remediating the multiple problems would be prohibitive.
A Draft Environmental Impact Statement was released on February 10, 2020, followed by a period of public comment. Letters were received from 22 individuals and from four agencies and historic-preservation organizations. Most, but not all, of the individual comments urged that a way be found to preserve the East Seattle School building, or at least parts of it, perhaps only the front facade or the distinctive front entryway.
The finale EIS was issued on August 24, 2020. It concluded that of the three alternatives that were considered -- demolition, allowing the existing conditions on the site to continue, or adaptive reuse of the building -- only the first was practical. In answer to those who advocated that at least a portion of the building be preserved, it was pointed out that the entire structure was of a piece, poured-in-place reinforced concrete, and that it was simply not feasible to separate any part of it from the whole.
After 18 months of review, study, and debate, the City of Mercer Island issued a demolition permit to the OB Mercer group on October 28, 2020. As a part of the permit requirements, the property owner was required to salvage materials and document the historic significance of building and site. Then the heavy equipment was brought in, and by early January 2021, after 107 years of existence, East Seattle School was no more.