The block on North Main between Laurel and Manzanita has ‘been around the block’ a time or two itself
By George Kramer
The block on North Main Street between Laurel and Manzanita streets has been associated with education in Ashland for 150 years, since the Rev. Skidmore first started a college called “The Academy” in 1872. The Methodist Church took it over in 1878 and, by 1882, the block was the site of the Ashland College and Normal School, with four teachers and 42 students. The name “Skidmore Academy” lives on as one of Ashland’s historic districts and the Reverend’s house still stands on the street named for him, opposite Minute Market.
By 1895 the Normal School became associated with the state and moved to a new location at the other end of town (where Normal Street is!). The Ashland School District, which had been renting space in the old Academy building, debated whether to buy the property and, after a certain amount of controversy and two elections, citizens voted 70-15 to spend $3,000 for the block. In 1900, the board voted to wire the building for electric lights, with a single bulb in each of the lower floor rooms only. The building, now called the Central School, served as the high school.
In 1904, the school district sold the Central School building to J. K. Van Sant for $50 and it was moved off the lot after the construction of what became the West Side School, a fine two-story brick building designed by Charles Burgraff, of Albany (a noted school architect) and built by H. Snook, both of whom had earlier worked on the East School, which stood where Safeway stands today (have you ever wondered why there are huge trees in the Safeway parking lot?). The new West Side School cost about $25,0000 and served as the high school from 1905 until 1910-11, when the new high school opened near Mountain Avenue. In 1925, the West Side School was renamed Washington School, the name it would keep for the rest of its existence.
By the end of the end of World War II, Ashland’s school population was exploding and the two elementary schools (Lincoln had become the city’s second elementary in 1926) were over-crowded. In March 1948, changes in state law encouraged the consolidation of Ashland District 5 with four other districts. Bellview (District 73) voted no, but the following month, in April 1948, reconsidered, bringing what is now Bellview Elementary into the Ashland School District (it was only later that the Bellview area became part of the city too).
With its enlarged tax base and growing student population, Ashland voters approved a new bond to build two brand new schools, Walker and, on the site of the Washington School, an entirely new elementary, both designed by Marion F. Stokes, of Stokes and Allyn, a prominent Portland architectural firm. Washington School was demolished and George A. Briscoe himself, a longtime district superintendent, was on hand to lay the first brick for the building that would bear his name in April 1949. It was an entirely up-to-date, modern design, with huge banks of windows for natural lighting, a single floor for easy access, and a dignified brick exterior. Briscoe Elementary was dedicated on Dec. 11, 1949.
The school district closed Briscoe in 2004 (my oldest son was in one of the last graduating classes, which had as its motto “Roots to the Future, Seeds to the Past!”). In 2018, the district sold Briscoe to the city for $2.04 million. The fields are now a park and the school is leased to the Oregon Child Development Coalition. Every once in a while, somebody suggests the city ought to sell Briscoe to pay for this or that, ending more than a century of public ownership. I think they should hang on to it.
Ashland historian George Kramer is founder of Kramer & Company, which provides historical preservation services. Email him at email@example.com.