West Seattle High School, Seattle, WA

Date posted: April 23, 2013


By 2000, West Seattle High School (1917, 1924, 1954, 1959) was lacking modern teaching technology and was feared to be unsafe during an earthquake. Instead of replacing the facility, the school district decided to temporarily relocate the students while the school was renovated and expanded.

Unique in the district, the historic school is a two-story neo-Romanesque style building of buff-colored brick with cream terra cotta trim and a gabled clay tile roof.

In keeping with a common academic model of early 20th century design, the school’s main façade relates to nature by fronting on the Olmsted designed Hiawatha Park.

Inside, artist Jacob Elshin painted scenes of early Seattle in WPA-sponsored murals at the auditorium’s entrance. These 1937 murals were rediscovered while preparing for the renovation.

For more information contact: Lorne McConachie AIA, lmcconachie@bassettiarch.com


  • To make a historic masonry school seismically safe for students; and
  • To incorporate a 21st century vision for student learning into a rehabilitated landmark school and an addition of similar size.

By the numbers

Date of construction: 1917 (architect Edgar Blair), 1924 addition (architect Floyd A. Naramore), 1930 on-site annex opened; 1954 addition (firm NBBJ); 1959 addition (Theo Damm); 2002 renovation (architect Lorne McConachie)
Declared a Seattle historic landmark: 1981
Size: 200,000-square-foot school
Enrollment: 1,300 students
Total renovation cost: $39 million
Site: 3.5 acres; expanded to 5.6 acres in 1928; expanded to 8.6 acres in 1948


To meet the challenge of becoming seismically safe and to incorporate modern teaching technology, the West Seattle High School was renovated and a new gymnasium was built in 2002.  

Specifically, the seismic retrofit involved numerous strategies based on the structural characteristics of the historic building:

  • The 1917 exterior walls (unreinforced masonry of face brick and hollow clay tile) were strong backed and structurally tied to the 2nd and attic floors;
  • New concrete shear walls were added at major entries, gables and the historic assembly hall; and
  • New CMU shear walls were added along the primary east/west corridor.

The building exterior was completely restored including cleaning and repointing masonry, reproducing and replacing damaged terra cotta, and refurbishing original wood windows.

On the interior, several spaces were adapted to new uses while preserving their defining historic features. The auditorium was converted into a student commons and the girls’ and boys’ gyms were transformed into a grand library and a laboratory/teacher planning space.

New building additions respect the historic structure’s massing, color and texture. In keeping with the original Romanesque massing, existing gable roofs were extended over new additions, a cloistered courtyard was planned for safe student and community access to major spaces within the school, and a barrel vaulted gymnasium of buff-colored concrete masonry completes the school’s overall composition.

Flexible learning spaces were arranged in small learning communities with classrooms and project labs grouped with teacher planning areas to encourage interdisciplinary and collaborative instructional models. Career and technical education studios were grouped with science labs to support theoretical and applied knowledge integration. A large day-lit open plan library allows flexible configurations for individual study, variable group sizes, and 21st century information access.

The success of this two-year project also relied on partnerships with key stakeholder groups to plan for the community’s use of the renovated facility. 

Key takeaways

  • Historic schools can be seismically retrofitted and new technology can be successfully incorporated
  • Older schools can offer a student-focused, flexible educational environment
  • Engage in partnerships with regard to community use of the facility



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