With its dome-style roof and nondescript plywood exterior, it’s hard to imagine Tacoma’s Hoyt Elementary School building as historic.
But what nonhistorians probably don’t know is the school building received numerous awards and recognition for its design after it was built in 1957. It even received international exposure when a scale model was showcased at an architectural event in Moscow in 1959 and in a German publication highlighting the use of wood in modern architecture.
The structure’s place in history could be formalized Tuesday when the Tacoma City Council decides if it should be added to the Tacoma Register of Historic Places.
Hoyt Elementary is one of three Tacoma Public Schools buildings and a private residence recommended for the list by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Other properties on the list include McKinley Hill Elementary School, Oakland Elementary School and the Shaw House.
Sunken below street level on North Union Street between 27th and 28th streets in Tacoma’s Proctor neighborhood, Hoyt Elementary was built as a four-room satellite school to house first, second and third grade students after the district determined it was too expensive to expand nearby Washington Elementary School.
Washington has since undergone a major renovation and absorbed those grades, leaving Hoyt vacant. The school district hasn’t decided how it might use the building.
While its plywood exterior doesn’t match the brick facades of the other schools on the historic list, it is actually the use of plywood that makes it historic.
“It was written up in architectural magazines as being a pretty innovative project,” said Sharon Winters, co-founder of Historic Tacoma. The nonprofit nominated the three schools for historic preservation.
Tacoma architect Robert B. Price developed the school for Tacoma-based Douglas Fir Plywood Association (now called the Engineered Wood Association), according to Historic Tacoma records. The idea was to create architectural plans that showcased the company’s plywood products.
The school’s gray color is drab compared with how it looked during its early years, Winters said. It previously played primary colors against each other and had a mural for children.
“I think with a restoration to what it looked like originally it would be a much more striking set of buildings,” Winters said.
Hoyt, along with the other schools on the list, McKinley and Oakland, were listed on a 2009 Historic Survey by Tacoma Public Schools. The three made the survey’s “high priority” classification as being the best fit for historic preservation.
The district has nominated other schools to be placed on the city’s historic register, but didn’t nominate these three, Winters said. The district had the opportunity to appeal the nomination by Historic Tacoma, but didn’t, she said.
“The district has a good track record of either supporting or not opposing the placement of their schools on the register,” Winters said.
Winters also is connected to the Shaw House, the only nonschool property on the list before the City Council next week. It is her home.
“It was built in 1901 and the reason we nominated it was not necessarily because of the architectural significance,” she said. “Well-known architect Stanley Shaw lived in the house with his family for 45 years.”
In that time Shaw, who helped design several buildings in Tacoma including the First United Presbyterian Church, made changes to the house to accommodate his growing family. That included things like bumping out the living room onto the wrap-around porch and installing five large picture windows to let in natural light — and a view of Mount Rainier when the leaves drop in the fall.
Other Shaw additions include the installation of a harvest gold-colored central vacuum cleaning system that is still in place, although not operational, and various Arts and Crafts touches. He also carved the saying “Strike a light! The universe is fireproof” into the fireplace, Winters said.
If the City Council approves the addition of the four buildings to the historic register they will join 130 other buildings already on the list.
The historic designation restricts what can be done to the buildings, limiting specifically changes to the exterior of the structures. It also opens the door to federal and local tax incentives for privately owned buildings. The school district is not eligible for those incentives because it doesn’t pay property taxes on the buildings.