Condos where classrooms used to be

Live in a sprawling old elementary school building? Why not? asks Val Thomas, a young Seattle architect and developer who has recently been instrumental in converting the 90-year-old West Queen Anne Elementary School here into 49 handsome condominium apartments. As student enrollments have fallen and neighborhoods have changed, hundreds of old schools across the country have become candidates for residential or commercial ``adaptive reuse.'' Preservationists have helped wage battles to save some of the more distinctive buildings.

For example, the conversion to residential housing of the West Queen Anne School earned a 1985 honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for ``outstanding achievement in preserving, conserving, and restoring the built environment.'' This first permanent reuse of a vacant school building in Seattle is now serving as an ``example project'' from which others may learn.

The doors of underused West Queen Anne were finally locked after the last graduation ceremony in June 1981, and the future of the building became uncertain. Mr. Thomas, who lived in the area, wandered wistfully around the vacant school, which had seen such hard use by thousands of teachers and students, and fell in love with its mellow old brick, graceful arched windows, elegant woodwork, high ceilings, and polished maple floors.

Thomas was accustomed to falling for old buildings. The first one to win his affections was an 1861 Philadelphia row house that he rehabbed with his own hands while in the urban-design graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1974 he came to Seattle as development manager for rehabilitating Pike Place Market, a complex of 17 old buildings, into shops, restaurants, produce markets, and hotels.

``That four-year experience restoring Pike Place Market made me love the whole idea of rehabilitation, of making old buildings work in new ways,'' he recalls. ``It also made me decide to become a developer as well as an architect. ''

Thomas, who earned his degree in architecture from Rice University in Houston, viewed the vacant West Queen Anne School with an eye for its distinct advantages. It had a close-in location on a hill that commanded superb views of both Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier. Because of its notable architectural characteristics, the school had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Thomas believed it had both architectural integrity and turn-of-the-century charm.

Fortunately, it was Val Thomas and his firm, Cardwell/Thomas Associates, that the Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority selected to plan the development of the site. Historic Seattle is a chartered public corporation with a record of purchasing, rehabilitating, and reselling or leasing historic properties.

Thomas soon produced plans that respected the architectural values of the old building as well as its historic and social significance in the city. In February 1983, a lease-option agreement was negotiated between Historic Seattle and the Seattle School Board to ensure the building's preservation in perpetuity.

In turn, Historic Seattle conveyed its option to acquire the building to West Queen Anne Associates, a limited partnership formed to develop the project, with Mr. Thomas as general partner in charge of project management. The complex financing package was provided by First Security Realty Services/West, a lender that specializes in historic properties.

Under Thomas's guidance, the building was converted into 49 condominium apartments, ranging in size from 600-square-foot studios to 1,400-square-foot two-bedroom apartments, and in price from $55,000 to just over $200,000 for the largest. Almost all of the condominiums have now been sold to buyers ranging from young career types to retired couples.

The schoolhouse's wide corridors, with their original woodwork and wainscoting, are still lighted with the original classroom fixtures. The walls are painted off-white and all wood trim and doors and wainscoting a warm gray. Original school windows were rehabilitated with new hardware and weatherstripping for energy efficiency. The original roof was saved, and skylights were inserted in fourth-floor penthouse bedrooms.

Former attic spaces were converted into dramatic two-level penthouses. First-floor apartments retain the original 13-foot-high ceilings.

The exterior of West Queen Anne was modified to include a new formal entry and a circular motor court, and the old asphalt playground gave way to new gardens and landscaping. A secure underground parking garage now provides space for 56 cars. To help integrate the imposing school structure into the residential character of the neighborhood, two gatehouses are being built at the entry, which will contain four town houses.

The raw construction costs of renovating West Queen Anne School came out to about $41 per square foot, Thomas says. With all development and carrying costs added in, the total cost comes out at about $80 per square foot.

The condominium Thomas purchased was once the old school auditorium-gym, a great volume of soaring space which, although still relatively undivided and open, he has converted into manageable living areas. Furnishings are spare and minimal. Lighting fixtures are those used in the old gym ceiling. The slate that covers the kitchen cabinets was cut from the old blackboards. The old hardwood floor has been stained white and given a high gloss finish, and old marble has been reused in the bathrooms. French doors have been added, leading to an outside patio, and an open staircase of glass bricks leads to an upstairs bedroom.

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