Whitman Elementary School in Tacoma has been named to the Washington Heritage Register, where it joins more than 1,600 historic and culturally significant properties.
The school, at 1120 S. 39th St., is the first post-World War II school listed on the state register and the first from Washington to be considered for the National Register of Historic Places, said state architectural historian Michael Houser.
Construction of the current Whitman school was completed in 1952. The building’s clean, sleek lines stand as a notable example of the International Style of architecture, known for its use of balance over symmetry and for its lack of ornamentation. The building is also significant because it was designed by a regionally prominent Tacoma firm, Lea, Pearson & Richards.
While the modern Whitman is recognized for its 1950s design, the school’s story reaches further back into Tacoma history.
A Whitman School first opened on the site in 1892. The book “For the Record,” a history of Tacoma schools, says it was the city’s first brick school and for many years was called “the Big Red School House.”
It became an anchor for the neighborhood. But it was badly damaged in a 1949 earthquake, along with several other Tacoma schools.
Whitman was demolished in 1950, and students attended class in portable buildings until a new building was completed in 1952. The new Whitman was renovated in 2003 with new classrooms, an expanded library and other improvements.
There have been discussions over the years about which person or people the South End school is named for. At one point, Tacoma named schools for famous American writers, so 19th century poet Walt Whitman might have been the inspiration.
But in 1947, “For the Record” says, the School Board president declared that it was named for state pioneers Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, missionaries who established an Oregon Trail outpost in Walla Walla in 1836.
The school’s website today calls the school Marcus Whitman Elementary.
State officials will forward Whitman’s nomination to the National Register in Washington, D.C.
A school’s placement on both the state and national historic registers is strictly honorary, Houser said. The recognition neither imposes restrictions nor qualifies the school for additional funding.
“It’s a way to celebrate the history and formally document the building,” he said. “There are no strings attached.”Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com