Anna Robinson remembers the feeling that overcame her the first time she stepped into Olympia’s Lincoln Elementary School last spring.

“It smelled like pencils and wooden chairs and old books,” she says of the 95-year old structure at the corner of 21st Avenue and Washington Street.

That perspective of a mom whose child was about to attend Lincoln – the special charm she felt – is shared by many others.

“It’s a grand old school,” says Randy Edwards, who taught full-time at Lincoln from 1969 to 2004, part-time for three years after that. “It’s the Mother Earth of schools.”

Lincoln Elementary
The original Lincoln School, described by the late local historian Gordon Newell as located at the corner of 13th Avenue and Cherry street. The picture hangs outside the cafeteria at the current school. Photo courtesy: Susan Parish Collection

In 1998 then-principal, Cheryl Petra, gathered all the students and staff together at Camp Thunderbird near Summit Lake for a day-long celebration for graduating fifth graders. As they sat hushed in a wooded, amphitheater-type setting in the gathering dusk, she reminded them why Lincoln is such special place for learning.

“You are surrounded by a community of love,” she said.

Five years earlier, the auditorium at the school was packed beyond standing-room-only, the atmosphere cracking with emotion, while generations of Olympians said good-bye to the school as they remembered it prior to the upcoming renovation. Families of up to five generations were represented.

“Everyone is part of this family – it’s the family of Lincoln,” says Cathy Smith, a long-time para-educator at the school. “It’s magical.”

“People have some very strong feelings about the building – strong memories,” Edwards says.

Lincoln is the oldest and only multi-story school in the Olympia School District. Its earliest seeds were planted in the early 1890s at the southeast corner of what is now 13
th Avenue and Cherry Street. The magnificent, castle-like structure with its stately front tower was Lincoln’s home until the new school, designed by noted local architect, Joseph Wohleb, was built in 1922.

Lincoln Elementary
Michael Dempster, Randy Edwards and Donna Dannenmiller, with about a combined century worth of teaching experience at Lincoln, stand in the library holding a picture of the original Lincoln School.Photo credit: Bob Partlow

At the same time, an adjacent property was purchased by a school board member and donated to the school district for an athletic field. Named Stevens Field after the first territorial governor, Isaac Stevens, its most memorable feature was a mammoth wooden grandstand, stretching over two city blocks along Washington Street that was built in 1934. Olympia High School played its football games there. The grandstand was consumed in a spectacular inferno in 1967.

Former Lincoln student, Genevieve Belmaker, 39, says, “Lincoln was very much a neighborhood school” when she attended in the 1980s. ”It was a pretty important part of my life.”  

She taught herself how to play tennis on the school courts and in second grade, “they had mandatory education about abuse that coached the kids about what to do,” Genevieve remembers.

“I was a victim of abuse at the time and was able to go home and tell my mom about it,” she says. “I’m thankful every day for what they taught me. It was a safe place.”
Teacher, Donna Dannenmiller, had a big sign hanging in the classroom stressing the concept of being “safe.” The sign is mentioned in the Harlequin Productions play about protester Rachel Corrie, another Lincoln student, who was later run killed in an international incident in Palestine.

Lincoln Elementary
A garden and greenhouse give students a keen appreciation of the outdoors. The annual Harvest Festival is held each fall to share the bounty of the garden.
Photo credit: Michael Dempster

The building itself stirs up strong memories. Katie Partlow, 40, daughter of this author, vividly remembers the auditorium. Now an actor, she recalls the auditorium’s full stage with the wings on the side. The stage had a red velvet curtain that could be pulled, wooden chairs that folded down and a balcony. “It was like a Broadway stage that had come to Olympia,” she says.

Both Belmaker and Partlow remember watching movies from that balcony, and Partlow says that even having the school named after Abraham Lincoln adds to the historical feel.

The stained-glass windows in the auditorium – which became the library after the renovation – are a special feature. Even now, the librarians say that kids are mesmerized when the sunlight streams in through them, making colors sparkle and dance across the room.

Both the students and Edwards talked about the thick, wooden stairway banisters still in place. The rule was “no sliding down the banisters.” Generations can testify as to how well that rule was followed.

Lincoln Elementary
Anna Robinson holds her son Gus outside Lincoln School. Gus will start kindergarten in fall 2016. Anna, a substitute teacher in the district, is working on the spring fundraising auction and raffle.
Photo credit: Anna Robinson

Another interesting feature is the ghosts that haunt the hallways. Both Edwards and Dannenmiller can remember doors opening and closing when they were there alone at night. “We even have what we call the library ghost,” Dannenmiller says, stemming from an incident when a book inexplicably flew off a shelf.

The school has changed in the last two decades, becoming home to the Options Program, described as a “holistic” approach to learning where students are judged against no one but themselves and move ahead as their developmental level dictates. Students outside the Lincoln service area are selected for the program through a lottery.

Dannenmiller helped lead the effort for the program as an alternative learning program within the Olympia School District. Nature, gardening and outdoor education are stressed. Adjacent to the playground sit a greenhouse, garden and gazebo. 

Although the teaching style and philosophy at Lincoln has changed over the years, much about the school has remained the same.

Lincoln school
The current front of Lincoln Elementary School, looking much as it has since the school opened its doors in 1922. Photo credit: Bob Partlow

Dannenmiller says she was the only one on a 30-member committee who wanted to keep the auditorium but believes, despite the change, the indefinable charisma of the school remains. As other schools were torn down and rebuilt, Lincoln has endured as a building and a memory for those who have taught and learned there.

“I’m really glad they didn’t tear it down,” Dannenmiller says. “They were able to keep the integrity of the architecture.”

“It’s a survivor,” says local historian, Shanna Stevenson. “It’s nice to have the old school around.

The 2017 Lincoln Options Spring Fling fundraiser will be held March 25 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at South Puget Sound Community College to support programs and activities at the school. For more information or to support the school by purchasing a ticket, visit the Spring Fling event page here.

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