An old Vashon schoolhouse gets landmark protection

Kathy Johnson rings the bell in front of the house she shares with her husband Phil. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Kathy Johnson rings the bell in front of the house she shares with her husband Phil.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

Over the years, Kathy and Phil Johnson have had a handful of strangers knock on the door of their modest but charming home tucked among the Douglas firs on Wax Orchard Road. The last surprise visitor, nearly a decade ago, appeared on their doorstep with her adult children beside her. “I went to school here,” she told them through tears when they opened the door.

The Johnsons are quiet people who moved to Vashon 23 years ago because they prized their privacy. But it just so happens that the home they purchased more than two decades ago is also the former Lisabeula Schoolhouse, which served countless Island children from 1925 to 1936.

And last week, in recognition of the home’s place in Island history, Julie Koler, King County’s preservation officer, went before the King County Landmarks Commission at the Johnsons’ behest, seeking landmark status for the old schoolhouse.

The commission unanimously approved the request, making the Lisabeula Schoolhouse the first of Vashon’s once numerous schoolhouses to attain that status and the first landmark designation on Vashon in seven years.

The Johnsons are pleased. Though private, they love their old house, painted a high-gloss cherry red with white trim and boasting a wide front porch with amply sized double doors. As the house nears its centennial anniversary, Phil said, he thought it only appropriate to honor its history by placing it on the county’s list of historic landmarks.

“I’m thrilled to death,” he said.

Kathy, too, is ecstatic. “I fell in love with this house before it was for sale,” she recalled.

The couple looked at several old houses when they decided to move to Vashon from West Seattle 23 years ago, they said, but none had the warmth or sense of privacy as this one.

“When we walked into the Lisabeula School,” Phil told the commissioners last week, “it just sort of captured our heart. … I’d like to see this structure survive.”

It used to be that the Island’s children attended one of 13 such schoolhouses on Vashon. During the Island’s Euro-American settlement period, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Island was a constellation of communities centered largely around the waterfront and connected, if at all, by boat, not by road, according to Island historian Bruce Haulman.

Several of those old schoolhouses still exist. Of the eight that were going strong in the 1920s, five survive, according to a document the county drafted as part of the landmark designation request: Center School, located near Minglement, Columbia School off of Cove Road, Maury Grade School off of Point Robinson Road, Quartermaster School just north of Morgan Hill and Dockton School.

Of those, the Lisabeula Schoolhouse is the most intact, the county says. As a result, historic preservationists were pleased when the Johnsons stepped forward in an effort to get their house registered as a landmark.

“It’s a lovely building and really neat that it still exists,” said Holly Taylor, a Vashon resident and historic preservationist who met with the Johnsons shortly after they made their request. “And it’s really neat that it’s owned by people who care about it and want to preserve that history.”

And rich in history it is.

The schoolhouse was the third to serve the once-thriving waterfront community called Lisabeula. The first proved too far away from the community, and the second burned down in 1923 or 1925 after a kerosene stove flared up and caught the curtains on fire during a meeting between the teacher and the community’s mothers, according to early historian V.S. Van Olinda.

The new schoolhouse was built on the same foundation as the second — a two-classroom structure with no plumbing or electricity. A play shed — a barn-like structure that gave the students a place to let off steam — stood nearby.

The schoolhouse closed in 1936, shortly before Vashon established its first all-Island district, but the structure continued to be the site of Island activity. During World War II, according to the county’s landmark narrative, it was used by the Red Cross and the Civil Defense for classes and other wartime activities, such as rolling bandages.

After that, the Ernst family, owners of a nearby farm, bought it, using the north half of the building to store hay. Later, they let the Unitarian Fellowship use the building as a temporary venue; other community groups also held meetings there, until the Ernsts remodeled the structure into a home with a kitchen and bathrooms.

Meanwhile, the founders of Vashon Allied Arts built a stage in the play shed, using it as its first performance venue some 40 years ago, Koler said.

The structure has changed a lot over the years, the Johnsons noted during a recent visit. One of the two classrooms is now their living area, with a kitchen, family room, bedroom and bathroom; the ceiling has been dropped and walls added.

But the northern half — or the second classroom — is little changed, and to walk into it is to step back in time. The ceiling is 15-feet high; a bank of beautifully framed windows, from waist-height to the ceiling, lets in a flood of filtered light.

Other features of the house hint at its previous life. The play shed still stands, giving the site more context and meaning in the eyes of historic preservationists. The home’s front entrance is a wide double-door with windows — just the kind of door a teacher might throw open to release a hoard of restless children. And next to the wrap-around front porch is a cast-iron school bell; when Kathy rang it, it let out a loud, rich peel.

The couple — she’s an artist and he works for King County Metro as an operating engineer — has had their fair share of surprise visits over the years. They recalled one time when a woman simply walked in, thinking it was a Jewish synagogue.

And the couple is braced for more visitors, now that it’s been landmarked.

But they think this home that they’ve come to love is worth the extra protection landmark status provides. And now, with the possibility of some low-interest loans or even grant money that comes with landmark status, they hope to undertake some needed repairs to the structure.

“It’s a real peaceful home,” Kathy said. “Even though I love to travel, I always love to come home to it.”



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