A Legacy of Learning – History of Schools Named Washington in Olympia

olympia school history
Although labeled in this postcard as Washington High School, the high school only shared space in the first Washington School. Photo courtesy private collection.


By Jennifer Crooks

hawks prairie golf logoThe story of Olympia’s Washington Middle School (3100 Cain Road SE) has roots in the community’s early history. Growing out of the original Eastside School, schools with the name of Washington have been a part of the everyday life of Olympia since 1891. In different buildings and locations, Washington Schools have continued their legacy of giving students an excellent education in an ever changing world.

The Eastside School, the predecessor to the first Washington School, served Olympia from circa 1871 to 1891. Located on the north side of 5th Avenue between Eastside and Quince streets, Eastside School served the children from the Eastside section of the booming town of Olympia, even attracting children from the Chambers district who had to walk about two miles to attend there.

olympia school history
Although labeled in this postcard as Washington High School, the high school only shared space in the first Washington School. Photo courtesy private collection.

Concerns about outgrowing the building made Eastside School think of getting a new structure as early as May 1889, but construction would only begin by the fall of 1890 on a site on Eastside Street between Fifth Street and Legion Way. The new school was finished by the end of the year and opened in January 1891. Costing around $25,000 to build, it was named the Washington School in honor of the nation’s first president George Washington and the state’s namesake. A versatile building, when it opened the school also housed the superintendent of the district’s office as well as a high school in addition to its normal first through eighth grades. The high school moved out in 1906.

Built in the Romanesque Revival style (a common style for schools of that era), the first Washington School was designed by architect Willis A. Richie (1864-1931), who planned Olympia’s Lincoln School at the same time. He was perhaps most noted as the architect of the Thurston County Courthouse/Old State Capital (now the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) in downtown Olympia.

Before school started, a number of parents were apprehensive about sending their children to the Washington School because of safety concerns about the building. Their fears turned out to be well founded. On November 14, 1892 a faulty furnace flue sparked a fire that threatened to consume the basement and spread to the rest of the school, potentially trapping students on the upper floors. Tragedy was averted by the timely actions of janitor Joshua Banner, who was able to put out the flames singlehandedly.

olympia school history
The second Washington School, built in 1924, now serves as Olympia School District headquarters and Avanti High School. Photo courtesy Jennifer Crooks.

Over the years, the first Washington School deteriorated and there was talk of building a replacement as early as 1919. A $135,000 bond to partly pay for the new school was approved by voters in 1923 and construction was completed a year later. Located down the street from the first Washington School, at what is now 1113 Legion Way, the second Washington School building was designed by noted Olympia architect Joseph Wohleb (1887-1958), who designed over a hundred buildings in the Olympia area including the old Thurston County Courthouse and the Lord Mansion. The building was constructed at the same time as the second (and current) Lincoln School, both in Wohleb’s signature Mission Revival style.

However, by the late 1960s, the school had outgrown itself and the students moved to a new building. But unlike the first Washington School which was torn down in 1936 and replaced by a National Guard Armory in 1938, the second Washington School was converted into Olympia School District headquarters in 1970. Fondly nicknamed “Old Washington,” the building was renamed in 1987 the Esther R. Knox Administrative Center after Esther Knox, the longest serving School Board member (1952-1983). Avanti High School, the Olympia School District’s alternative high school, moved into the lower level in November 1997 and the building was extensively renovated in 2002 and 2003. Most of its historic features were retained, especially its façade.

To replace the second Washington School, a third school was constructed in 1969 as Washington Junior High. Eventually changing its name to Washington Middle School, it was constructed by NBBJ of Seattle in Southeast Olympia at 3100 Cain Road SE. This school served students for over forty years and included a central courtyard and a sunken library. A music room (designed by MSGS Architects of Olympia) was added to the front of the building in 1999.

washington school history
This image shows the current Washington Middle School, renovated in 2006. Photo courtesy Jennifer Crooks.

However, the school was extensively renovated in 2005-2006 by Mahlum Architects of Seattle. Although it kept its original footprint, the structure can be considered a totally different school, a “fourth Washington.” The district received a grant to add “green” features such as taller hallways and more windows. Through these modifications, the district planned to save on water and electricity usages and costs at Washington Middle School.

Moreover, Governor Christine Gregoire at a special ceremony on April 8, 2005 at Washington Middle School signed a bill requiring all new major public agency facilities in the state over 5,000 square feet, including schools that receive federal funding, to meet the Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) specifications. Washington Middle School was among the first to meet these qualifications.

Schools named Washington have been a constant presence in Olympia for over a century. Growing out of the Eastside School and taking many forms over the decades, Washington Middle School continues its legacy of providing a good education to the children of Olympia.

Author’s Note: The author and her father are both graduates of the third Washington School. Her uncle attended the second Washington School during its last years of operation.


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