IN OUR CORONAVIRAL days of school closures and social distancing, and with May Day here, this week’s “Then” image might be poignant. It depicts 130 people posing for a group photo at West Seattle’s Jefferson Elementary School on Saturday, June 1, 1985, just 17 days before it fell victim to the wrecking ball.
As editor of the West Seattle Herald, I organized the gathering to document the passing of a building in which thousands of students spent formative years, from its opening in 1911 until 1979, when plummeting enrollment and soaring renovation costs sealed its fate.
The former Jefferson students and staff who turned out faced 42nd Avenue while our fearless photographer, Brad Garrison, perched atop an 8-foot wooden stepladder to capture the scene. The print’s upper edge is irregular because, for effect, the photo ran large on the front page, extending up into the newspaper’s nameplate.
The school, named for our third president, designed by Edgar Blair and built one block east of West Seattle’s Junction business district, had an enduring effect of its own — on its students.
“We bleed Jefferson,” says Lisa McCandless Bernardez, who attended in the mid-1970s. Every five years since, she has reunited with her best friend, Jefferson classmate Sue Haynie Craig, at the salad bar inside the Safeway anchoring the full-block complex that replaced the school and opened in August 1987.
“It was a great, mysterious, humongous school,” Bernardez says. “When they tore it down, it broke our hearts.”
Some recall the edifice’s crowded baby-boom classrooms (nearly 1,000 students in 1953-54), wooden desks and worn stairs, along with the “old smell you never forget.” Others cite civil defense (atomic bomb) drills and sneaking into the basement to discover long-abandoned rations and body tags.
Students also exploited the neighborhood’s business milieu to create meandering walking routes. Wayne Hagler, who attended in the late 1960s, says, “We’d go through the showroom of Gene Fiedler Chevrolet, then Lucky’s grocery, then the auto-parts store to get STP stickers, so a 20-minute walk home took 45 minutes.”
Most wish Jefferson could have been preserved and repurposed, as were schools in Queen Anne, Wallingford and elsewhere. But the latter-day impact of its 33-year-old substitute, Jefferson Square, is undeniable. The five-level structure serves thousands of customers, workers and residents via retail storefronts (80,000 square feet), offices (67,000 square feet) and residential space (78 apartments).
Nevertheless, lingering today in the memories of Myra Bowen Skubitz, who attended in the mid-1940s, and Karen Arthur White, who attended 10 years later, is Jefferson’s annual spring jamboree. It brought every student in the school to its enormous asphalt playground for dancing with streamers around a maypole and other fun. One can still imagine.