by Ann M. Colford
High up on the Five Mile Prairie in north Spokane sits an empty red brick schoolhouse, the windows and doors covered with plywood. For 30 years, neighborhood children learned the basics inside its two sun-splashed classrooms and ate homemade lunches prepared by a neighbor in the cafeteria. Children in first, second, and third grades sat in one classroom while the "big kids" - in grades four through six - used the other. Then in 1969, the Mead School District closed the Five Mile School, and its students were reassigned.
"It was a great place to go to school," says architect Gary Lauerman, who attended Five Mile School during its last three years in operation. Now, Lauerman is part of a nonprofit organization, the Friends of Sky Prairie Schoolhouse (FSPS), formed to help save the building and reopen it as a community arts center. "The building has wonderful character," says Lauerman. "The ceilings are 13 feet tall, and it has paneled doors and wood floors throughout."
Built by the Works Progress Administration to replace an older school building that had been declared unsafe, the red brick schoolhouse opened in 1939. Two large classrooms and the former principal's office fill the main floor; the cafeteria and kitchen are below, and a gymnasium with a small stage occupies the back wing of the T-shaped building. The original windows remain intact behind the protective plywood coverings.
After the school's closure, the Spokane County Parks and Recreation Department used the building briefly as a community center, but the population of the prairie was too low to support it. After three years, the building was shuttered again. Since that time, the Mead School District has maintained the building and used it sporadically for storage.
In the mid-1980s, several residents of Five Mile Prairie began to dream of turning their schoolhouse into an arts center. Bernadine Van Thiel, who moved to the prairie 27 years ago, was an early proponent of the idea, but she says it wasn't until the Spokane Preservation Advocates (SPA) painted the school's back stairs in July 2000 that the effort to adopt the building really got moving. The Five Mile Prairie Neighborhood Association formed a committee to coordinate preservation efforts.
In 2001, the committee joined with the Mead School Board to conduct a community needs survey regarding the schoolhouse. Overwhelmingly, residents of Five Mile and surrounding neighborhoods supported saving the building. Favored uses included a farmers' market and a center for arts education and the performing arts. The committee explored options for public-private partnerships with the Mead School District and the Spokane County Parks and Recreation Department, but neither proved to be an acceptable solution.
Now the committee has become a separate nonprofit organization; the group recently received its 501(c)3 designation from the IRS.
"The immediate goal is to raise the funds to purchase and restore the building," Lauerman explains. "The school district has given the neighborhood group until the end of 2003 to buy the building."
Both Lauerman and Van Thiel say that school district officials, despite the imposition of the deadline, have supported neighborhood's efforts. SPA has helped with grants and donations, and FSPS has already met with the City/County Historic Preservation Office to review the building's eligibility for local and national historic registers. The group is holding a 5K fun run on Saturday to raise both dollars and awareness.
"The building itself is structurally sound," says Lauerman. "There are some cosmetics and repairs to be done, but the structure is good. And the building is certainly significant in terms of the culture of the community."
If FSPS is able to purchase the building, the group hopes to turn it into a local gathering place for teaching, promoting, and enjoying the arts. Van Thiel says the group has consulted with the founders of Create Place, an arts center in Newport that bought and restored an old church.
"We were inspired by their success and also by success of the Cutter Theatre in Metaline Falls," she explains. "We met and talked with those people, and they were wonderful about sharing information."
The group continues to refine its vision for the future of the schoolhouse; meanwhile, the race to come up with funds heats up. The building's advocates remain hopeful that everything will work out.
"A community center would be the best thing that could happen to the school," says Lauerman, "because of the central location on the prairie and the great spaces that are perfect for that kind of use. It could become a real focal point for the community."
Publication date: 05/15/03