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Multnomah School could join Burnside Bridge, Portland City Hall and Paul Bunyan Statue on national list

The building on Southwest Capitol Highway once known as Multnomah School is now just one step away from official recognition of its historical significance with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

It's taken a village of volunteers to get this far.

So far, official landmark status for what is now the Multnomah Arts Center at 7688 S.W. Capitol Highway has been approved unanimously by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and the Oregon State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation. The final verdict will be rendered by the National Park Service, keeper of the nationwide list of historic places. There are currently 2,000 properties in Oregon on that list but very few of those are old school buildings that are still being used by the community, as Multnomah School is.

The application for the listing is sponsored by the Multnomah Neighborhood Association. Volunteers, including graduates of Multnomah School, took only a few months to assemble the case for listing the building.

Jan Mawson led the effort and says she built on the "essential foundation" laid by the Multnomah Historical Association, which actually researched and published a book about Multnomah School in 2001. "Under the leadership of Lowell Swanson, that history was exhaustive," acknowledged Mawson.

"Everyone who worked on the project lived in Multnomah Village at one time or another and we all consider it a very special place," Mawson wrote in an email to the SW Connection. "Multnomah School is an integral part of what makes our neighborhood special, as it is arguably the most significant building in our community given its history, location, size and architecture."

Mawson said what impressed the city and state landmark panels was the historical role Multnomah School played in "the progressive education movement" when it opened in 1923 and how the building itself was a part of that movement with flexible classrooms, gym space for boys and girls, lots of natural light and a big auditorium for use by the community as well as the school.

There's still some work to be done before a final vote is taken on the nomination.

"Once the nomination is approved by the National Park Service, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places, the designation would be official. This process could take several months," Mawson said. "Official recognition of the historic significance of the Multnomah School to the community is long overdue and an important step in contribution to its long term future."

This was Mawson's first time assembling facts and figures to make the case for a listing on the National Register. The 27-page nomination form is full of the technical specs of the building but there's also some interesting community history.

FIVE TAKE AWAYS FROM THE MULTNOMAH SCHOOL LANDMARK NOMINATION

No. 1: The same kind of volunteer effort that went into putting together the application in 2019 was seen in 1913 when the men who ran the Portland school district had to be convinced that Multnomah needed a school. There were no civic leaders from Multnomah, which was "remote physically and culturally from the rest of the city," so people signed a petition. Temporary classrooms were filled past capacity immediately (sound familiar?) and many students had to walk all the way to Hillsdale for school. So the school board built a permanent school on Southwest Capitol Highway. Constructed in 1923, it opened in 1924 with 95 students. By 1926 there were 300 students, or about 38 students per classroom, and an expansion had to be built.

No. 2: The commercial area along Southwest Capitol Highway from Multnomah Boulevard to the Multnomah School site has only been known as Multnomah Village since the 1980s. According to the nomination document, "In the 1980s the neighborhood's business association rebranded that part of the neighborhood that was simply called 'Multnomah' as 'Multnomah Village.'"

No. 3: The Multnomah School Parent Teachers Association did a lot more than today's PTAs do. During the Depression, the PTA at Multnomah School raised money for poor kids, provided student meals when the school district refused to fund a cafeteria, sponsored after school clubs and when a projector was needed to show movies in the auditorium, the PTA raised the funds to buy one. Members of the PTA also organized monthly meetings between parents and teachers.

No. 4: The Multnomah School community was so welcoming to African American students bused in from Northeast Portland, that in 1978 and 1979 the school received the McPherson Award for Racial Understanding, which was given to the Portland public school that "had the most outstanding on-site program leading to racial understanding by its parents, faculty and students." Though the neighborhood was overwhelmingly white, 15% of the students at Multnomah School in the 1970s were African American.

No. 5: If Multnomah School had been kept open in 1979, we wouldn't be talking about a possible listing on the National Register of Historic Places today. The community waged a fierce fight to stop the closing of the school but the failure of that effort actually preserved the building. Mawson, the woman who led the research effort, said, "It closed in 1979 and was not subject to architectural changes made to other Portland public schools." Those are the kind of changes that can make a building just another old building and not one that belongs on the National Register of Historic Places.


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