September 30, 2010 in Washington Voices

Wilson school has respect, partnership of neighbors

By Correspondent
Colin Mulvany photo

Wilson Elementary’s current building opened in January 1927.
(Full-size photo)

About this feature

Landmarks features historic sites, buildings and monuments that often go unnoticed – signposts for our local history that tell a little bit about us and the region’s development.

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Wilson Elementary School on Spokane’s South Hill was declared the most modern school building in the city and “equal to any built anywhere,” according to a newspaper account in December 1926.

Surely one of its outstanding features – its pink exterior – was a highlight then, and remains so now. Designed by the architect of the city’s Lewis and Clark High School, L.L. Rand, Wilson’s neoclassical style stands out especially because of the seven shades of pink tapestry brick on the exterior. Paired pillars flank the central front door, over which a basket arch is prominent – all of which give Wilson a graceful and lovely appearance.

Located at 911 W. 25th Ave., Wilson – named for the 28th president, Woodrow Wilson – was first opened in 1922 in two portable buildings at 19th Avenue and Jefferson Street, serving first- and second- grade students only. A third portable in 1925 enabled third-graders also to come.

Wilson’s 75 students moved up the hill to begin classes in the new school in January 1927. There were six classrooms, accommodating students up through the sixth grade. The year 1941 saw the addition of an east wing, much of which was destroyed by fire in 1973. A west wing was added in 1961. Principal Tony Ressa didn’t know it when he was assigned to Wilson in 2008, but he has since learned that the architect for the rebuilt east wing in 1999 was Jerry Ressa, a distant cousin of his. Small world.

Other changes have been made over the years, but Wilson remains a quintessential neighborhood school, according to Tony Ressa. “Think ‘Kindergarten Cop’ but more quaint,” he said. “We have an exterior that looks like it was peeled right off the movie. We even have a mom-and-pop ice cream store in the neighborhood.”

Although he was raised in the Spokane Valley, Ressa was in Arizona when he learned he would be coming to Wilson. He went online and took a satellite view of the school. “ ‘Where is the parking lot?’ I asked a teacher here. There isn’t one.”

And do the neighbors mind that Wilson staff park in front of their homes? “Not at all,” he said. “The streets are narrow and we sometimes lose our side mirrors, but we have the best neighbors ever.”

He recalled his first day as principal two years ago when a large load of playground fiber had been delivered in a pile: “I was going to help the custodian spread it out, but we only had one shovel at the school. Our neighbors came out of the woodwork and saw two morons trying to spread the fiber with one shovel, so they brought over their shovels and wheelbarrows and pitched in to help us. It just doesn’t get better than that.”

And this year with the Lincoln Street paving project, Ressa asked some neighbors if they’d mind if the school parked buses in front of their homes during the construction. “Nope, they were fine with it. They are truly a part of our community and we are of theirs,” he said.

Help and cooperation has also come from within the building. When Don Neraas was a student there in 1945 he drew a picture of the school with the addition of a concrete retaining wall along a portion of the property. Apparently the school’s PTA was taken with the concept and prevailed upon the school board to build the wall around the playground. Neraas, the late Spokane architect who helped design the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, had said he considered that wall his first architectural project.

Wilson has two other well-known alumni – actor Craig T. Nelson, who starred in the TV series “Coach” and now appears in the series “Parenthood,” and Metropolitan Opera star Patrice Munsel, who was quoted in a 1953 newspaper story as saying: “Living in New York is stimulating, but I wish we were able to raise our children in a place like Spokane. It’s wonderful to have your own neighborhood like we did around Shoshone Street and wonderful bright, cheerful schools like Wilson Grade School and Lewis and Clark High School.”

Now with 356 students, Wilson is pretty much at capacity. It has been modernized, but it still retains some of its old-fashioned charm, according to Ressa – including four classrooms which have the old hardwood floors and cloak rooms.

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