Save this icon and give South Hill an identity

The old Firgrove School building peeks out as construction was about to get underway last year on a new school, which opened this fall.
The old Firgrove School building peeks out as construction was about to get underway last year on a new school, which opened this fall. News Tribune file photo, 2018

My heart took an extra beat when I saw the children grouped for a picture in front of the 1935 constructed Firgrove School building.

I was on Meridian headed to South Hill Post Office, when I glanced at nearby Firgrove Elementary School complex that I taught at for 19 years.

Would this 2019 photo be the last taken in front of this icon — a building with so much history, so much meaning for the South Hill community, for my children who attended the school, and for me?

Firgrove was special because there was land for children to participate in baseball and kickball games. Children could walk a trail, collect leaves for leaf collections and connect to nature. There was land enough to have kite contests, balloon experiments and just plain fun.

Puyallup School District built a new two-story Firgrove School on those ball fields behind the original Firgrove complex. This year Pope Elementary students are housed in the original school complex while their school is finished.

After Pope students move into the completed Pope school, the district plans to destroy the original Firgrove 1935 building icon, along with the 1961 and 1977 additions. Then it will sell a 300-foot strip of school land bordering Meridian for commercial property.

Unincorporated South Hill has no identity besides being an area of strip malls, apartments, retirement homes, wall-to-wall housing and horrendous traffic. The population of South Hill is estimated at 62,000 and rising.

Where is the money for school infrastructure and the vision for the past and for the future — our children? I am sorry the district has the need to bulldoze the last historic public building so land can be sold to help balance the school budget.

Since 2009 a group of us South Hill community members tried to work with school officials to preserve the brick building located at the south end of the Firgrove School complex. Why did we do it?

This building is a testimony to a community that put children first in the middle of the greatest financial crisis — the Great Depression. And it is a legacy of J.J. Patzner, who donated land and helped build the original Firgrove School in 1895.

Incredibly, Patzner was still active with the school 40 years later. He persisted in his quest to give Firgrove students the best learning environment possible for the times.

As chair of the Firgrove School Board, Patzner obtained a Public Works Administration grant to build a new school; it paid for over half the cost of the building. Community members voted to supplement the rest of the money. Firgrove was completed in 1935.

Solidly built Firgrove’s original brick building has four rooms. One large room used to have a stage that the Tacoma Daily Ledger reported was “equipped for elaborate productions”. This room served as a community social center for many years.

Award winning architect E.J. Breseman designed the building. Local contractors constructed it.

Sadly, community members’ pleas over the years to work for a win-win solution did not sway district officials from their decision to destroy the building. There is an option to move it. However, the cost would be almost $1 million. And there needs to be a place for it.

This building would make a great historical center featuring tribal history and South Hill pioneer history, an environmental center and a community center providing activities for youth that would be an easy walk from surrounding “yardless” apartments.

A pre-school/daycare center is another option. We just need funding to make it happen.

Unincorporated South Hill has no community center, no museum and less than a 100 acres of parkland. Preserving this icon would be a step towards creating, caring community — and a good place to raise children.

Patricia Drake has lived on South Hill for 47 years. She is a retired teacher and was one of the first TNT reader columnists chosen in 2000.