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Days may be numbered for piece of ‘heaven’ in East Seattle
By Clay Eals
Quick quiz: Where is East Seattle? If you’re thinking Madison Park, Leschi or other places east of Broadway where the street names begin with “East,” you may be forgiven.
The correct answer is that, unlike the directional designations of North, South and West Seattle, East Seattle isn’t in Seattle at all. You have to head one mile east on Interstate 90 and across Lake Washington to find it at the northwestern edge of Mercer Island.
Nestled just south of where I-90 begins tunneling beneath the Mercer Island lid, the neighborhood of East Seattle is the island’s oldest, serving as the then-unincorporated community’s business and residential hub for decades before the floating bridge opened in 1940. It boasted a hotel, store, church, post office and the only civic vestige still standing from that era – 105-year-old East Seattle School.
The school may not stand much longer.
Built in 1914, operating as a public school (and sporting views of the lake and the majestic Olympics) until 1982 and as a Boys & Girls Club until 2008, the two-floor, Mission-style concrete structure has sat vacant in recent years and looks rather bedraggled. Its owner, auto magnate Michael O’Brien, who lives nearby, is seeking city permits to demolish it and fill its 2.9-acre trapezoidal parcel with 14 single-family homes.
This fate troubles some longtime islanders and graduates of the school. For Margaret Vik, 92, who attended East Seattle in the 1930s when Seattleites reached the island by boat, the school summons memories of simpler times – from echoing ferry foghorns to a steady corps of teachers, led by longtime principal Ethel Johnson, “who just required you to do your best,” she says. “I learned how to accept things the way they were. We were real country kids and lived country-style. Everybody knew everybody. Now you don’t. To me, it was heaven.”
The school’s demise, however, would be no surprise to those who have witnessed the island’s boom-bust school-age population cycles and relentless development pressure. No viable proposal to retain East Seattle School is surfacing, and, depending on how island city officials rule this fall, all that may survive its razing is an entrance archway or an interpretive plaque. But hope remains.
“There needs to be a creative reuse of this building,” says Jane Meyer Brahm, co-president of the local historical society and former city council member and newspaper editor, speaking in a video for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, which listed East Seattle School on its Most Endangered Places list.
“This is the oldest public building on the island. For a community like Mercer Island with such a short history, we need to do a better job of preserving those historic buildings we do have.”
To see Jean Sherrard’s 360-degree video of the NOW1 prospect and compare it with the THEN1 photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Here is a video on East Seattle School produced in 2018 by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation:
Below are three photos from Grant Spearman, East Seattle School graduate, along with, in chronological order, 16 clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and the Mercer Island Reporter (available at Mercer Island Library) that, among many others, were helpful in the preparation of this column.