Islanders make 11th-hour effort to save an old gym

The Vashon Elementary School gymnasium — a 1919 wood-frame structure slated to be demolished later this year — has been declared one of the most endangered historic structures in the state by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

According to the organization’s annual listing, released Tuesday, the gym “stands as the last physical connection to Vashon’s early schools” and is thought to be “one of the most historic non-agrarian structures on Vashon Island.”

Thirteen structures — from the globe atop the Post-Intelligencer building to the Alki Homestead Restaurant in West Seattle — are included in the annual statewide list. Chris Moore, the trust’s field director, said the group declared Vashon’s old gym endangered because of its historic significance and imminent demolition.

“As a resource type, it’s very unique,” he said. “We just don’t have many old gyms — stand-alone, wood-frame construction gyms — standing any longer. … It’s pretty unique for the state.”

The gym, owned by the Vashon Island School District, sits next to The Harbor School on the north end of Vashon Highway. It was shuttered in 2005 after the school district determined that it needed extensive repairs and upgrades to make it structurally safe.

Earlier this year, the school board voted to demolish it to make way for a major restoration of the playfields that surround the old structure. The Vashon Park District, which, by way of an interlocal agreement, oversees the playfields, has garnered $650,000 in grants to undertake the playfield restoration project.

“We’ve got a project that’s ready to go,” said David Hackett, a commissioner on Vashon’s park board.

There’s been “a lot of public process” surrounding the gym’s fate, he added, but no group or individuals — including those who have expressed the most recent concern — have stepped forward with the funds to save it.

Bob Hennessey, who chairs the school board, concurred.

“There’s no cash in hand. And absent some demonstration that they have the money — even a part of the money — what we have is a lot of liability exposure to Vashon taxpayers,” he said.

Those active in the preservation community said they realize the latest call to save the old structure amounts to an 11th-hour effort. But the building, a remarkable and increasingly rare reminder of the Island’s rural past, deserves one last campaign, they said.

“There needs to be a push from somewhere,” said Holly Taylor, an Islander and historic preservationist. “And maybe this endangered listing will be that push.”

In a visit to the building last week, she pointed out the fine-grained wooden floors, walls and ceiling — most of it, more than likely, made of old-growth fir milled on the Island.

“Just the building materials alone are a treasure,” she said.

On Vashon, where there’s much talk about teens not having enough to do, the old gym “could be a wonderful community center,” she added.

“It needs cosmetic work and seismic upgrades,” she said. “But the bones are great.”

A group of Islanders attempted to find a way to save the old gym a year ago, an effort that faltered after it failed to be named a historic landmark and few people rallied to its cause.

A few months ago, however, the effort took on new life, when Kji Kelly — an Islander who works as the director of property and asset management for Historic Seattle, a preservation development authority — began to investigate the situation. Last week, he went before the school board with the outlines of a plan: For $1.9 million, much of which could likely be secured from various granting agencies, the old structure could be shored up, rewired, re-plumbed and moved to a location on the site where it could be incorporated into the park district’s ambitious playfield restoration project, he told them.

The park district’s plan calls for a structure that would provide bathrooms and a concession stand, he noted. The old gym could do that quite well, he said.

“Unlike most preservation projects, it has a real defined use,” he said. “It’s very clear it could be used and was used just four years ago.”

Kelly came up with his figures after consulting with a top-of-the-line construction firm and a company that moves buildings; his goal, he said, was “to eliminate as many assumptions as I could.”

He was motivated, he added, by the building’s simple beauty and its historic and architectural integrity.

“It’s nothing fancy; it’s nothing highly decorative,” he said. “But it seems to me to be very stoic and proud and true to its purpose.”

Hennessey, however, said the $1.9 million price tag, even if some of it could come from grant money, gave him and others on the board pause.

“It’s a very unique building. And it’s a building that in a more perfect world would be saved,” he said. “I just can’t see spending a million dollars in taxpayers’ money, especially at a time when we’re laying off teachers.”

Taylor, a veteran of campaigns to save old structures, said she realized the price tag was sobering. But on Vashon, with its do-it-yourself gumption, Islanders could probably find a way to lower the costs considerably; volunteers, she said, could step in and play a significant role.

Standing in front of it last week, she gazed into the dark interior, at a gym so little altered it still has its original basketball striping.

“You could play field hockey in here,” she said.

“It’s not the dearly beloved building that people would lay their bodies in front of,” she added. “But it’s cool. … I think we should do everything we can to keep it out of the landfill.”

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