Seattle's Garfield High School reopens Wednesday after a two-year renovation.

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One of the striking features of newly remodeled Garfield High School isn’t really new. It’s just that, for the first time in years, the school’s stately brick-and-terra cotta entrance can be seen clearly by drivers headed south on 23rd Avenue.

A number of portables and the former gymnasium used to obscure that entrance and its triple-arched doorways. Now the portables are gone, as well as part of the hill they sat on.

Garfield is clearly visible again, standing above what’s now a large courtyard in front of the school.

It’s a grand entrance to a grand building that hasn’t changed on the outside, but is nearly all new inside its historic facade.

Two years after Garfield closed for a much-needed update, the Bulldogs are coming home. Garfield has long held a special place in the city’s history.

It has been a racially diverse school, starting, some alumni noted, long before diversity was something people talked about. That diversity has been one of its strengths but also one of its challenges.

East High was originally built on the site in 1920 to relieve overcrowding at other high schools. A few years later, however, the school district’s architect, Floyd Naramore, designed a larger new school, named for former President Garfield. It opened its doors in fall 1923.

Garfield’s architecture is described as “20th century Jacobean,” with more white terra cotta detailing than the other schools Naramore designed at the time. (Naramore is the N in NBBJ, now a large global architecture and design firm.)

It’s also the place where Jimi Hendrix went to school, as well as NBA star Brandon Roy, chessmaster Yasser Seirawan and musician and composer Quincy Jones, for whom the school’s new 600-seat performing-arts theater is named.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of a number of notables to have spoken at the school, and School Board member Mary Bass, a 1975 grad, remembers going to hear Jesse Jackson there when she was in middle school.

In 1979, the district moved a program for highly capable students to Garfield. The school is well known for producing National Merit Scholars each year, and for its award-winning music programs and basketball teams.

Eighty-five years of use took its toll, however. A few parts of the building have been remodeled since the 1920s, but not many. It had quirks, too, especially the fact that the third floor of the 1923 building did not connect with the third floor of a 1929 addition. (As part of this latest remodel, a bridge was added.)

And one staff member, who asked for anonymity on this point, said that by the time the remodel date was approaching, the bathrooms … let’s just say he freely gave passes to students who ran to a friend’s house nearby.

The initial cost of the project was $74.5 million, said Don Gillmore, who manages the district’s major capital projects. But escalating costs of materials and labor — in part driven by construction for the Olympics in Beijing and Vancouver — added to the price tag. The final cost, he said, will be $107.4 million. As a result, he said, the district moved two projects (South Shore and Hamilton Middle) from the bond measure called Building Excellence II to Building Excellence III, passed in 2007.

Inside, Garfield is much lighter than it used to be, especially the hallways where there didn’t used to be much natural light. Classrooms are bigger and have lots of new technology.

The old auditorium, which was downsized to one story awhile ago so that the library could be built on top of it, now is the cafeteria/commons area, with ceilings that soar three-and-a-half stories high.

North of the building is an annex that holds a state-of-the-art theater, and a gleaming new gymnasium big enough for three basketball games to be played at once.

As with remodeling projects at other district schools, pieces of Garfield’s history have been saved and used in new ways. The carved, wooden entryway into the original library, for example, now stands at the entrance to the computer section of the new library.

And in an art classroom, one of the murals painted directly on the walls by former student Irwin Caplan, who went on to become an award-winning illustrator, graphic artist and cartoonist, has been preserved to inspire students of today. It shows two trapeze artists midair as they’re grabbing onto the next bar.

Lawrence Matsuda, a former principal and member of the Garfield design team, said the group decided early on that the themes for the remodel would be legacy and promise. To be included, an idea had to serve one or both purposes.

Principal Ted Howard II said he’s excited that the portable classrooms are gone so that teachers and students will feel part of one school.

He’s also committed to enhancing the value of the racial diversity that still exists today.

“We want to make sure diversity is not just a word,” he said. “That we’re actually living that.”

Howard’s a Bulldog, too. He graduated in 1985.

And even though the inside is all new, he says, the outside looks just as it always did. And that, he said, is enough to make it feel like home.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or