Blue Oak School Then & Now

With the commencement of the Fall school year, NCL thought this article may be of interest. Written by Rebecca Yerger in December of 2012, it focuses on the history of  the Washington-Polk primary school, A.K.A. Blue Oak School. This article was originally published in The Napa Valley Marketplace magazine.

The downtown Napa building now known as the Blue Oak School has housed schools to agencies over its 103 year history. However, before being rehabilitated and returned to its academic roots, this building was once on the brink of demolition. And, while the present-day students are making life-long memories at this Mission style school, there are long time Napans who remember their school days at this Polk Street institution.

This 1910 postcard shows Washington Primary School, designed by Napa architect Luther Turton.

Built in 1909, this educational center was originally known as the Washington, then Polk, Street School. The first floor of the school contained the first and second grade rooms. The third and fourth grade classrooms were located upstairs. 

The architectural aesthetic of the school, Mission style, was popular between 1890 – 1920. “California was the birthplace of the Mission style…,” said Virginia and Lee McAlester in their book, “A Field Guide to American Houses.” They added, “Although never popular outside of the southwestern states, scattered examples were built in early 20th-century suburbs throughout the country.” This style gained even greater popularity when Southern Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad Companies built their Mission style depots and stations.

Some architectural historians are of the opinion that the Mission style was the western U.S. counterpart to the eastern U.S. Colonial Revival architectural movement. Instead of the classically-inspired Colonial Revival details such as front door or porch decorative crowns or pediments supported by pilasters, porch columns and overall symmetry, the Mission style featured arches, curvilinear roof parapet and gable ends, terra cotta roof tiles, wide overhanging open eaves and smooth stucco wall finishes. Some architects also incorporated Craftsman or Prairie style details such as the Craftsman exposed rafter tails.

Regarding the longevity of the Mission style era, the McAlesters said, “The style quickly faded from favor after World War I as architectural fashion shifted from free, simplified adaptations of earlier prototypes to more precise, correct copies.”

The downtown Napa school building possesses most of the aforementioned Mission style details plus the exposed roof rafter tails and braces of the Craftsman style seen under the eaves. However, over time, the building has sustained some alterations. Fairly recently the property underwent additional modifications. The primary exterior change was the demolition of the 1960s library turned county archive building once located on the property. The school interior also received some minimal modifications. And, while the building has been altered, overall, the school building maintains its Mission style aesthetics and architectural integrity.

During the recent rehabilitation of the school, on one particular day in late 2001, the then 94 year old Mildred Pearch negotiated the busy construction zone to reminisce. Pearch had attended Washington-Polk Street School from 1913 -1917. As she spryly stepped into what is now the front and main entrance of the Blue Oak School, Pearch noted a small office was once on the left-hand side of the entrance. Pearch then said, “No one, no staff, was in that office. However, there was the school phone in that office. In fourth grade I was chosen for the prized job of telephone girl by the fourth-grade teacher-principal, Miss Zella Springstein.”

Pearch also recalled how language arts, penmanship, music and art were as important as math and science lessons. Another, and equally as important school subject was proper behavior and personal conduct.

This photo was taken in 1994 prior to the school’s major renovation from 2000-2002.

Eventually, Pearch did attend the grand opening ceremony for Blue Oak School. Then a few years later, Pearch passed away.

Another Washington-Polk Street School student was Virginia Tallman who would also be over 100 years old now and has passed away. However, in the mid-1990s she talked about her memories of attending the school. Tallman commented on how one’s seating location in the classroom made a difference in a student’s comfort level and overall attentiveness. “If you sat near the windows in the cooler months, you’d freeze.” She continued, “And, at any time of the year, if you sat near the wood-burning stove, you’d roast. It was definitely a case of location, location, location.” Tallman added, “My favorite subject was recess. In those days, the girls and boys had separate playgrounds which extended all the way to Calistoga Avenue.”

Then, by the time 93-year-old Dorothy Soderholm and 95 year old Ray Clark were attending local schools, Washington-Polk Street School served as the Industrial Arts building for the Intermediate School once located on the current downtown Safeway site. “They taught shop classes at the old Polk Street School. I remember taking wood shop classes there. We used hand tools then.” Clark continued, “Our first project was to shape a piece of wood into a square block.” He added, “Most of us had funny looking squares.”

Soderholm also recalls the shop classes. “However,” she added, “the girls had domestic arts classes at Polk Street School, too.”

The building served as a primary school again for a time before the County converted it into office space. Then in the late-1990s to early-2000s, as previously mentioned, the County had planned to demolish the former school. However, the County was convinced to sell the 1909 school building.

Then following its rehabilitation, the former Washington-Polk Street School began its new educational center era in 2002 as the Blue Oak School.