The Story of Olympia’s Garfield Elementary School

Garfield Elementary Olympia 1919
Fifth and sixth grades gather in front of the Garfield School in 1919. Photo courtesy: Washington State Digital Archives, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990

James A. Garfield, 20th president of the United States, was shot in 1881 by a disgruntled office seeker. His death months later from his injuries shocked the nation. Decades later in 1902, and reeling from the assassination of President William McKinley a year before, the Olympia School District renamed its Westside school after Garfield. Now known as Garfield Elementary School (325 Plymouth Street NW), the school has been housed in several different buildings over the years, but its commitment to quality education has remained.

heritage bank LogoOlympia’s first public school opened in 1852 at what is now Legion Way and Franklin Street. In 1882, the Olympia School District absorbed other city districts, including the Westside. In 1884, the Olympia district built a Westside school on Rogers Street. This school gained a new stove and $20 school bell in 1888 and also cleared brush and stumps on the school grounds. It included first through eighth grades.

By the 1890s, the Westside had outgrown its school building and wanted a new one. In March 1893, residents petitioned the Olympia School District to sell two lots the district owned on the Westside and build a new 12-room schoolhouse. The district put the issue to ballot and the plan won with a large majority. Most of the voters were women, who were allowed at the time to vote in school elections, as it was seen as an extension of traditional duties. Washington women would not be able to vote in general elections until after 1910.

Architects Harstsuck and J. W. White were hired to design and construct the new school at the corner of Madison and Rogers Streets. The structure was in the high Victorian Romanesque Revival style. A central square tower, arched windows and entryways, and a rounded turret in the corner decorated the imposing building. Students entered the new school in December 1893. It was renamed Garfield School in 1902.

Garfield Elementary School Today
Architectural remnants from the old Garfield School greet visitors at the current Garfield Elementary School. Photo credit: Jennifer Crooks

Garfield School changed over time to keep up with changing technology as well as a growing number of students. In 1907, an eighth grade classroom was added and in 1910 students received free textbooks instead of having to have their families buy them. In 1909, the school got a telephone and in 1912 electric lighting replaced gas, but only in one classroom and the hall (to serve evening meetings). The school was hooked up to a sewer line in 1913 (formerly they would have used an outhouse) and an auditorium was built in 1919, allowing the classes to put on plays and entertainments.

Parents became more involved with the school, forming the Garfield Parent-Teacher Association in November 1910. The association helped raise money for school programs, including expanding home economics and manual/industrial training departments.

By the mid-1920s, however, the Garfield schoolhouse was falling apart. The bell tower had to be demolished in 1926 and the auditorium was closed due to structural issues. Outer walls had to be reinforced with railroad ties. Olympia was in a period of rebuilding its major schools with new Lincoln and Washington structures being constructed at the same time. Despite these problems in 1929, Garfield School added two portables to accommodate overflow students from the high school and the district’s “Opportunity Room” for special education students.

In January 1929, the Olympia School District bought land adjacent to the old Garfield school to build a replacement. The District Board accepted the completed school in 1930. This new structure was built in Mission Revival style to match the new Lincoln and Washington schools. All three of these buildings were designed by leading Olympia architect Joseph Wohleb.

Garfield Elementary School Olympia
Garfield Elementary School has seen many changes over the years, but it works hard to be a welcoming place. Photo credit: Jennifer Crooks

The new Garfield School was built on the heels on the Great Depression, which hit the district hard. The Welfare Committee of Thurston County hired unemployed men to raze the old Garfield School in 1932 and the Civil Works Administration employed people to install lights and floors in the Garfield school play shed in 1934.

The post-World War II baby boom proved a great strain for local schools. Many new homes were being built in the surrounding area, causing sewers to back up during heavy rains. In 1949, there were 682 students at Garfield and the school built an eight-room addition in 1953. The district added new schools to the city to ease the strain, including L.P. Brown Elementary School on the Westside in 1965. Garfield’s mascot was the wolf.

The building weathered the 1949 and 1966 earthquakes without major damage but time took its toll on the structure. In a controversial move, the district decided to tear down the second Garfield school and replace it with a new building at the same site. The old Lincoln and Old Washington Schools were preserved. Old Washington is now the home of Avanti High School.

So the old Garfield School was torn down in 1989. The new replacement building was completed. It has served the educational needs of numerous students since then. A new addition and modernization was completed in 2013-2014, and the mascot is now a cheetah.

Garfield Elementary School has seen many changes over the years. Still it is an important part of the community and remains committed to excellence in education for all its students.

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