Capitol Hill’s Meany Middle School consideration as landmark likely a mere formality before major overhaul

From May, Meany’s understated elegance

From May, Meany’s understated elegance (Image: John Feit)

Seattle Public Schools has its hands full these days so you might forgive its lack of interest in the “understated elegance” of Capitol Hill’s Meany Middle School. The 20th Ave E buildings — built in three phases in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s — are due for a major overhaul and construction project to prepare the campus to host a new Capitol Hill middle school by 2017. As part of the process, the district is carrying out the city’s landmark designation process to determine if the building has architectural significance that will require the construction to preserve specific historical elements.

But it’s not an enthusiastic nomination. The schools spokesperson called the nomination proposal coming in front of the landmarks board Wednesday a “fairly standard practice” and said it has been part of nearly all of the district’s major renovations.

Now, if we were fighting to preserve the 1941 edition, things might be different...

Now, if we were fighting to preserve the 1955 edition of Meany, things might be different…

Still, if you’d like to mount a defense of Meany’s architectural significance, you can send your comment on the nomination to the landmarks board via email or plan to attend the hearing this week:

The Landmarks Preservation Board will consider this nomination at its meeting on Wednesday, September 16, 2015, at 3:30 p.m. in the Seattle Municipal Tower, 700 5th Avenue, 40th Floor, Room 4060. The public is invited to attend the meeting and make comments. Written comments should be received by the Landmarks Preservation Board at the following address by September 15, 2015, by 3:00 p.m.: Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board, Dept. of Neighborhoods, P.O. Box 94649, Seattle WA 98124-4649 (mailing address).

Meany Middle School | Nomination | Drawings – Part 1 | Drawings – Part 2 | Drawings – Part 3 | Appendix 3 | Public Notice (PDF)

For support, you might consider our essay from May by Capitol Hill architect John Feit exploring Meany’s understated elegance:

A view of the northern most saw-tooth shows that it is neighborless, revealing a simple composition of skylight and window. Again, repeating, simple forms with just a hint of hierarchy (the posts between the windows and the brick wainscot, for instance) maintains the simple approach.

The small dimensional change seen between the saw-tooth frame and infill is seen at the stair, where the walking surface of the landing and staircase is about 8 inches past (or ‘proud’) of the adjacent brick. Even though the stairs and saw-tooth could not be more different, the same sensibility of revealing the difference between structure and infill is used in the detailing of both elements.

“I get excited when I see such conviction displayed on otherwise disparate elements,” Feit writes, “as it exhibits a rigor absent from many buildings of more recent vintage.”

In the meantime, the nomination documents (linked above) provide a good read on the history of the school grounds:

Originally opened in 1902 as the 20th Avenue School, the name of the school was changed to Longfellow during the first year of operation. The original twelve-room structure was designed by E.W. Houghton, and followed the “Model School” design. 549 students in first through eighth grades attended the school. Annie L. Gifford was the principal of the school for its first thirty-four years of operation. Assemblies were held on the stairs, and vacant lots and forest surrounded the building.

It includes some of the more recent history of the school:

In 1969, the Central Area Schools Council was formed to facilitate more community involvement and input in the management of area schools. Meany was paired with Madrona in 1970, and the seventh and eighth grades were housed at Meany, turning it once again into a middle school. The next year a school desegregation plan was implemented, with bussing for children from Eckstein, Hamilton and Wilson. Further efforts to racially balance the student population included desegregation efforts in 1978 and a controlled choice plan in 1988.
Despite winning recognition from the US department of Education in 1987, Meany’s enrollment sank, and by 1989 there was little more that half the previous number of students, about 590, fewer than any other middle school in the district.
New staff and funding came to the school in 1996, when Superintendent John Stanford reorganized Meany as a math, science, and arts magnet school, and enrollment rose slightly. Other programs at the school included a single multi-grade Montessori program in beginning in 1998, and an aviation- training program.6 Meany Middle School was closed in 2009, and the Nova Alternative High School moved into the building that year. Today, both the World School program and the Nova Alternative High School are housed in the building.

Nova, by the way, has since moved back to its home in the Horace Mann building on E Cherry.

If nothing else, now you also know who Edmund S. Meany was:

The school was named after a history professor and legislator who had attended Seattle schools starting at Central I, and earning his PhD at the Territorial University. As legislator Meany helped select the campus site for the University of Washington.

You can Google Longfellow.

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