For more than three decades, artists lived a sort of rebellious, school’s-out fantasy inside Cedar Park School, a Lake City elementary shut down because of low enrollment in 1981.
Where students once had to follow rules — be on time, raise your hand before you talk, tuck in your shirt — members of the Artwood Studios community cut loose with strange personalities and creative careers.
Musicians belted out songs in concerts Anne and Alan Paisley hosted at the library-turned-apartment where they raised two daughters. Meg Hannan has a rainbow-colored jewelry-production line in one former classroom and lives in another with two fluffy, rag-doll cats below a silky parachute exotically draped along her ceiling. Farther down the still locker-lined hallway lives painter and sculptor Astrid Larsen, who dreams up new projects while sleeping in a giant bed shaped like a pirate ship.
“How she’s going to move that thing out of here will be a story all on its own,” said Anne Paisley, the resident manager who’s preparing all 11 remaining live-in Artwood Studios tenants to move out by March 1. That’s when Seattle Public Schools will be taking the property back and spending $10.2 million on making it a proper school campus again for Northeast Seattle’s fast-growing student population.
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Districtwide, enrollment has grown by about 4,000 since 2009 and is expected to have 9,000 more students by 2020, according to Tom Redman, capital-management spokesman for the district.
Though the artists may be able to move their businesses and passions to other spaces — ones likely much farther away or smaller — Paisley, Hannan and other tenants say the community they cultivated at Artwood will be irreplaceable.
“We have such a sense of ownership because we’ve been here so long. It’s hard to prepare for it,” Paisley said of what she considers the end of an era. “It’s just a shame to lose something in the city that is so incredibly precious. We’ve created a real model community.”
The district could have sold or leveled the Cedar Park School property when it first closed the site down in 1981. Instead, it was leased out to a community of artists the district hoped would keep the building in good repair until enrollment picked up again.
Not long after, tenants such as the Paisleys were raising kids who would roller-skate and bike down the hallways. Anne Paisley’s daughter, Kate Paisley, remembers how artists created swings and toys for them, or watched whenever kids put on a light show or dance performance in the auditorium.
It didn’t dawn on Kate until she was in the fourth or fifth grade, she said, that her living situation might be a little strange — but still amazing. As she grew older, she dipped into the artist studios for more than playtime.
“When you get to a certain age, you just want to hang out and talk to people besides your parents for advice,” said Kate, now 29. “They were like aunts and uncles to me.”
Landscape painter Marc Bohne, who’s rented work space there for about 20 years, said he had always felt like anyone who lived there was family, too. Even though his studio now has paintings that can sell for around $60,000, he said he’s never worried about leaving his studio open to anyone who needed to borrow something.
“I completely trust everyone in this building,” Bohne said.
In the company of those trusted relationships, careers including Bohne’s and that of his wife, Carolyn Dunford, flourished.
But Artwood Studios tenants didn’t just concentrate on enriching the lives of its own.
When Anne became resident manager in 1993, she led a seven-year effort of Artwood tenants and Cedar Park neighbors to transform a sketchy, asphalt playground area on the west side of the campus into a beautiful, green public park. That park will remain public even after the campus is reconverted to a traditional school.
Once Artwood residents have vacated by March 1, the district will renovate the campus while keeping its landmarked architectural shell intact. It will house Olympic Hills Elementary students starting in the summer of 2015 until their own campus renovation is finished. Steve Cole, Seattle Public Schools project manager, says he expects Cedar Park School to become its own elementary once again by the end of 2017.
After its remodeling, former residents and studio workers might recognize a few things if the district decides to keep an homage or two to Artwood Studios — maybe a canvas painting in the hallway, the large-head sculptures of former resident David Jacobson that dot the courtyard, or a Jimi Hendrix mural that reads “the old meeting the new.”
But painter Sandra Power, 75, who is one of seven daytime Artwood studio tenants still there, said she won’t be able to stop by for a while after that. Artwood’s people, its overgrown plants with pheasants roosting in them, its quirkiness were her studio “dream come true.”
“I don’t think I’ll want to come by to see the changes — it will be too sad,” said Power. “I just wish the district could see the bigger picture and not sacrifice one valuable asset for another.”
Moving hits hard
Ever since Artwood Studios hosted what may be its last reunion party in early September, a celebration that drew more than 100 people, the task of moving on has hit residents hard.
Kate, who lived in the building over the last year to take it all in before it was gone, is moving out to a nearby houseshare situation for October.
“It’s like the loss of a family member,” said Kate. “It’s just a huge foundation of who I am.”
At a rummage sale Artwood Studios put on in its gym during Saturday’s heavy rain, tenants sold as many possessions as they could part with.
While some would have liked to see a little more of a fight to stay, others accepted how fast Seattle is changing and why the school district needs the campus back.
Unlike other times Anne Paisley thought she could fight efforts to push the community out of the building, she said she understood this time that increasing real-estate values and enrollment made it hard for the district to not take it back.
In the future, Paisley said she would rather have people look at the school and think of the spirit of expression and collaboration Artwood Studios brought to that neighborhood for so long, not a divisive fight over what seems to be inevitable change.
“We love this neighborhood. We’ve made friends here and we respect and care about what they want to happen,” said Anne. “I want to leave on a high note.”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.