TBA IS THROWING OPEN the long-shuttered doors of Washington High School this September, dusting off the vacant public school's old chalkboards and auditorium seats to host the nightly after-hours performance and visual arts schmooze-fest known as "The Works."
The building sprawls over an entire city block in inner Southeast Portland, its imposing brick boiler-room towers rising amid Buckman neighborhood streets lined with cute single-family homes. Washington High was the first high school east of the Willamette, built in the first years of the 20th century but not named after Washington until 1909. But for the past six years Washington's classroom windows have been unceremoniously boarded up with plywood, its entrance on SE 14th chained shut.
Washington High has a restless past. Just 13 years after the school opened, it burned to the ground. It took two years and $500,000 to build the current brick building, which opened in 1924. Old alums call Washington High School "WaHi," and recall its various highs and lows via an alumni website (wahicols.com): While a 1954 alum named Vernon Hudnut nostalgically remembers his favorite teachers and their important lessons, an alum from the '60s just as fondly recalls smoking cigarettes and joints on a sofa that lived for a few months on a parking strip on the corner of SE 15th and Alder.
Facing declining enrollment and a tight budget, Portland Public Schools (PPS) shut down Washington High in 1981, booting its students to Cleveland and Grant. Abandoned for two years, the school reopened for a mishmash of special uses. In addition to the PPS administrative offices, the old school has hosted a daycare center, a continuation high for pregnant girls, a "vocational program for Indian youth," and Portland's special-ed students, according to Doug Capps of PPS.
But facing even steeper budget cuts, PPS vacated the school entirely in 2003 and began shopping around for someone to buy up the prime real estate. They nearly sealed a deal with Beam Development, who planned to divide the historic school building into condos. But that plan gradually fell apart in 2008 as condo financing dried up.
During the condo-planning phase, another resident briefly occupied the abandoned school: The Red Cross made plans to house Hurricane Katrina victims in the school's old cafeteria. In autumn of 2005, the Red Cross and National Guard rolled into WaHi and set up rows of cots, but the expected influx of Katrina victims never arrived. Not a single hurricane victim ever slept in the empty beds, says Capps.
While the capitalistic and philanthropic plans both fizzled, Portland Parks has been moving along plans for a long-desired multiuse community center. Portland Parks purchased WaHi's west field in 2004 and a few years later tore down the high school's gym and cafeteria. But after tearing down the buildings, it took until 2009 to secure the money to draw up plans for new ones. "There's been all kinds of wish-list discussions about this in the neighborhood for years," says neighborhood association member Kina Voelz, who dreams of everything from a photography studio to rooftop garden in the building.
For a few brief weeks this September, music, video and dance will bring new life to Washington High's long-silent halls, writing a new page in its scattered history.