The character and charm seen throughout the campus of the Washington School for the Deaf are evident in what will soon be its oldest academic building.
Why does its elementary school — Northrop Primary — have two shades of teal-colored tile throughout the halls? What’s behind the nearby underground tunnels that lead to the Washington State School for the Blind? And how many people have encountered the ghost alleged to frequent Northrop’s basement?
“There’s a lot of little quirks about the buildings on campus,” said Shauna Bilyeu, superintendent since 2016 and previously its elementary principal.
Some narratives are forever cemented at Northrop, which opened in 1953. The interior tile may have faded on one side over the decades, but if the state has its way, the building never will fade.
That’s because a nomination was accepted last week to have the two-story elementary school listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Washington Heritage Register. It’s part of an agreement with the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation to preserve a building that fits the post-World War II, mid-20th-century aesthetic.
Six buildings on the campus — which became eligible for the National Register listing in 2008 — are planned for demolition.
The Washington School for the Deaf identified needs for improved facilities several years ago, citing existing outdated or unsafe buildings. Some buildings on campus are no longer in use.
Last month, the Legislature budgeted $55.1 million for a 60,000-square-foot academic and physical education building on the campus, which serves more than 100 students in grades pre-K through 12. The two-story building is slated to include classrooms, office space and a gymnasium.
Among the six campus structures to be torn down is a one-time vocational building that opened in 1911 and is now used for storage. Demolition work will begin in phases as soon as this summer, and the new academic building could break ground in 2022, Bilyeu said.
“This is pretty bittersweet,” she said, “because this is the heart of the deaf community.”
And Northrop, the building up for preservation by the state, is part of that heart. The elementary school, which serves students in grades pre-K through six, consists of three sections: classroom and administrative spaces, a central foyer and a multipurpose room/gymnasium. It’s also where the school’s alumni museum is housed; three classrooms are packed with sports mementos and historical classroom and residential artifacts.
Outside of minor modifications, the building is the original from when architect Donald Stewart used his “International Style” on Northrop: a classic midcentury, rectangular, two-story model with brick exteriors, ribbon windows and flat roofs. Stewart designed several public buildings in the greater Portland/Vancouver era from the 1930s through the ’60s, including five buildings at the School for the Deaf from 1937 to 1954.
At Northrop, classrooms were designed to optimize teacher-student visual contact, and interior corridors were constructed wider to facilitate students walking while communicating in American Sign Language. Character-defining features include its rectangular structure, sparse exterior ornamentation, ribbon windows, ceramic wall tiles, terrazzo flooring and built-in cabinets and cork boards. Few schools of this age and style of design have survived and remain intact, according to the registry nomination report.
“His design for Northrop Primary School blends practicality and artistry in a way that is highly evocative of the period of construction,” the report said.
Once the new academic building is in use, Bilyeu said, Northrop will expand the campus’ early childhood services for deaf children age 5 and younger and their families.
Northrop principal April McArthur, who has worked at the School for the Deaf since 2001, said the campus has given people a sense of belonging and inclusion for decades.
“We’re so proud of our legacy,” she said.
And the campus will retain at least one place with plenty of historical quirks.
Said Bilyeu: “It’s a new era for us, but still preserving a little bit of history.”