Photo: Gault School exterior in 1940, courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.

In the fall of 2023, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation received a nomination to include Tacoma’s Gault School in our Most Endangered Historic Places List. Located in Tacoma’s McKinley neighborhood, the Gault School had become a source of controversy since declining enrollment led to its closure in 2009. Community advocates, fearing disinvestment and the lack of a neighborhood school, disagreed with the Tacoma School District over the decision to close the school. Residents, many carrying their own fond memories of when they had attended Gault, were keen to retain a distinctive historic school that students in the neighborhood could walk to. Following Gault’s closure, most in the community desired to see the school building preserved and integrated into a new use at the site. They also expressed concerns about the future of the site following closure—what it might be used for, who it should be sold to, and perhaps most importantly, how long the school would sit vacant.

The Tacoma School District engaged in what became a multi-year effort to find a new use for the site, with two separate Requests for Proposals (RFPs) considering everything from veterans housing to a partnership with the Tacoma Housing Authority to commercial redevelopment. An RFP issued in 2022 ultimately resulted in the district selecting a developer with plans to build a residential/mixed-use project on the site. Unfortunately, rising interest rates, increased construction costs, and associated delays resulted in questions surrounding the feasibility of the proposed project. Increased uncertainty coupled with changing attitudes in the neighborhood led the school district to terminate the project agreement and proceed with plans to demolish the building.

Despite the dissolution of the development agreement, many in Tacoma felt the school district should continue efforts to save the school. Gault School was, after all, eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places and represented a significant resource for the city. Yet, the Tacoma School District’s move toward demolition was informed, in part, by changing attitudes within the neighborhood. While Gault School closed in 2009, Metro Parks Tacoma continued to operate and manage the associated community pool, providing a city government presence at the site. With the opening of the new Eastside Community Center in 2018, pool operations ceased at the Gault School. With the school site entirely vacant and several non-historic buildings already demolished, the historic main school building became an attraction for vandalism, squatting, graffiti, and other illicit activity. The neighbors around the school site—once strongly in favor of preservation—grew tired of enduring what was becoming a blight. Once the development proposal fell through, and with no clear path to preservation in sight, several voices in the neighborhood called for demolition.

It was under these circumstances that the Washington Trust received a Most Endangered Nomination for the Gault School. Staff and members of the Trust’s board weighed our own hopes to see this important historic resource repurposed against the understanding that the decision by the school district to pursue demolition came after many years of working toward preservation (taking into account the neighborhood’s shifting position as well). The debate around the Gault School nomination continued within the organization all the way up to January 3, 2024. That day, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation was deeply saddened to learn of the fire that ultimately consumed the historic Gault School—an act of arson perpetuated by vandals.

While the fire ended the debate about featuring Gault School on our Most Endangered List because the blaze effectively destroyed the school building, questions remain about how the resource got to this dire situation. At one point, all parties agreed that the building should be preserved and activated for a new use. Despite this groundswell of support, rehabilitation stalled. The longer the building sat vacant, the greater the challenges became for its reuse. We at the Washington Trust plan to continue engaging in candid discussions about the underlying causes and conditions resulting in the loss of the Gault School. We are interested in working with all parties to determine if policy changes at the local or state level are needed to facilitate the rehabilitation and reactivation of surplus schools. We are interested in exploring potential new incentives to address the economic hurdles that restrict historic school redevelopment. Given the number of existing examples of historic schools being converted to housing, we want to know why, in the case of Gault School, this did not work out. And we want to hear from you—what are your thoughts on the Gault School and on the prospect of rehabilitating historic schools in your communities? Please contact us with examples of school rehabilitation successes or failures at info@nullpreservewa.org.