The Horace Mann Building—currently home to Nova High School—has been a lot of things. But it started out as the Walla Walla School.
In 1902, what we now know as the Central District was growing rapidly, with plats being filled and homes constructed at a rapid pace. The neighborhood, known then as the Walla Walla Addition, got two brand-new elementary schools to meet its new surging population: The 20th Street School at 301 21st Avenue East, which would be later renamed Longfellow and then Edmond S. Meany Middle School, and the 12-room Walla Walla School at 2410 East Cherry Street. The schools served a diverse population, especially for such a relatively young American city, with the student roll including children of African-American, Japanese, Filipino, Jewish, and Italian descent, among others.
Canada-born, Detroit-raised architect James Stephen, first trained as a cabinetmaker, designed the model used for the Walla Walla School. Stephen also designed several other Seattle schools in the early 1900s with very similar aesthetics; the floor plan Stephen typically used for Seattle schools included a modular, phased-construction process that enabled the builders to build eight, 12, or 20 classrooms, and to add an extra block of rooms later on if needed. His hallmarks include wide wooden floors and grand interior staircases with oak bannisters.
If you went to school in Seattle, you may well know this classic wooden schoolhouse prototype, and perhaps can instinctively recognize the various versions of it around town as soon as you step inside. A few extant examples of the Stephen signature schoolhouse include the original John Hay building at 411 Boston Street on north Queen Anne Hill (now the Secondary Bilingual Center), the John D. Allen school at 6532 Phinney Avenue N (now the Phinney Neighborhood Center), Interlake Elementary at 1815 N 45th Street (now the Wallingford Center), and the Summit School (now the Northwest School), and the Colman School (now the Northwest African-American Museum). The Horace Mann building was designed in an ornamented Colonial Revival fashion, one of the earliest examples of non-residential buildings in the style. (You can check out the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board’s landmark designation document here.)
In 1921, after two decades of use, Walla Walla School was renamed Horace Mann Public School, after the U.S. Representative, Whig, and passionate educational reformer who worked to establish universal, non-sectarian, free education in 19th-century United States. Grades one through eight—including a very young Jimi Hendrix—were served at Mann, and a kindergarten was added in 1931. Seventh- and eighth-graders were sent to Washington School down the road after 1938.
After enrollment declined, Horace Mann was closed in 1968 and was utilized as a catch-all for various overflow programs and offices for its across-the-street (sort of) neighbor, Garfield High School.
The version of the building that perhaps most surviving Seattleites know is as the Nova Project, now called Nova High School*. The experimental learning community was founded in 1970 by a group of 12 students and their parents, who lobbied the Seattle School District to be allow them to establish a democratically run, curriculum-free alternative high school that focused on student interests. It worked, and after five years of holding classes first in the downtown YMCA and then the Seward School in Eastlake, the small group moved into the Horace Mann building in 1975. Fellow alternative school Summit K-12 shared the building with Nova between 1977 and 1979, but after that, Nova was the building’s main occupant until 2009. The dilapidated old building became covered in student artwork, written, painted, and carved directly on the walls. Principal Elaine Packard, who joined the staff in 1971, was at the helm for the initial move and stayed there until her retirement in 2005.
In March of 2010, the building, more than 100 years old and in bad need of repairs, was vacated, and Nova moved to—of all places—the old Meany Middle School building a few miles away. The Nova building, known once again as the Horace Mann building thanks to the carved wooden letters above its main entrance, was leased by Peoples Family Life (PFL), whose program “Work it Out” offered vocational and educational training for at-risk teens.
In 2013, as gentrification in the historically black neighborhood reached a fever pitch, the grounds became something of a battleground. PFL had been subletting space to the Independent Seattle Amistad School, a bicultural Spanish-language immersion school, and in conjunction with the Amistad School, a community-driven after-school program called Africatown Center for Education and Innovation was operating at the building. But when Seattle Public Schools (SPS) decided not to renew PFL’s lease in 2013—in favor of a badly needed total renovation followed by an eventual re-welcoming of the Nova Project back to its original digs—it hit a snag. PFL’s subletter, the Amistad School, complied and moved out upon the lease’s expiration on August 15. But Africatown didn’t.
Led by activist and organizer Omari Tahir-Garrett, members of the program chained up the school’s doors from the inside, barricaded them with furniture, and squatted full-time in the building. Tahir-Garrett and his community denounced their eviction as yet another blow in a long line of systemic disenfranchisement efforts, alleged that the SPS curriculum was whitewashed and discriminatory to black students, and insisted that the Horace Mann building be used for services devoted to black youth instead. Flags of African nations and banners bearing messages such as “decolonize our schools” appeared on the chain-link perimeter of the property. Africatown members even began broadcasting a small radio station from inside the building.
You may recognize Omari Tahir-Garrett’s name from a successful occupation of a Stephen-designed Seattle public school back in the 1980s, leading the Colman School to become home to the Northwest African American Museum. More recently, Tahir-Garrett also ran for Seattle City Council District 2—unsuccessfully—in the 2019 primary election. He has also been in the public eye as a candidate for the city council’s position 9 seat back in 2015, and for being convicted of breaking then-mayor Paul Schell’s face with a bullhorn in 2001.
School superintendent José Banda, who positioned himself as a champion of closing SPS’s wide racial achievement gap, was initially sympathetic to Africatown. But the effort was also costing the district about $1,000 a day between utility costs and construction delays. When SPS cut the power and Tahir-Garrett obtained a generator, things got ugly. Rumors of roof snipers and booby traps emerged, although they were denied by Africatown, who maintain that they were nonviolent. Ultimately, SWAT teams showed up, the battering rams were brought out, and the incident ended in the arrests of Tahir-Garrett and three other men on charges of trespassing—on November 20th, 2013, after an impressive three-month standoff.
Unlike its twin, the 1902 Meany Middle School building, which was demolished and replaced from the ground up in 2017, the Horace Mann building still stands, making it the oldest school currently in use by SPS. And since the 2015 renovation, she’s a stunner. Tacoma-based TCF Architecture spearheaded a large-scale modernization and seismic update to the 33,000-square-foot building while restoring the school’s ornate Victorian-era details. The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board and Nova joined forces with TCF to plan an overhaul that included a total buildout of the basement to make it a more useable space, along with greater accessibility measures, such as a new elevator and new bathrooms on all three floors. A new wing was constructed on the north side of the building with an art room, science lab, and band room. The exterior, formerly white with blue trim (and usually in sore need of a touch-up), has a new brick-red paint job with white trim.
Today, with Nova all moved back into its historic home as of 2016, the school is vibrant, bursting with color, innovation, and creativity. It’s business as usual—true to its 1970 mission, Nova still aims to be “a democratically governed learning community of broadly educated, creative, and independent thinkers who work collaboratively and demonstrate a high degree of individual and social responsibility.” As when it started, kids draw up their own contracts detailing work to be completed for credit, and receive a pass or fail rather than a letter grade.
Overall, the students seem pleased have an updated, earthquake-proof school, but there’s one big change: They’re no longer allowed to draw or paint on the walls, which was kind of a Nova custom when it operated out of a beat-down building, or even allowed to drill into the walls to display their artworks. But the kids find ways, using paper and tape, canvases on sticky hangers, and even up vinyl records on strings—and they’ve packed the hallways with their paintings and drawings, bringing the building to life in yet another way.
*Disclosure: Both the author and the editor of this article are Nova High School alumnae.