Central School’s final lesson

Building’s impending demise bittersweet for former students; firefighters will train at site before burning it

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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photoFixing the decades-old Central School building, as opposed to spending money on newer facilities, would have cost too much to make it worthwhile, school officials said.

(/The Columbian)

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Pat Somdalen and her fifth-grade classmates cleared their desks of their books and walked out the two-story building they called home to start their Easter holidays. When they resumed classes, they did so in a picturesque, one-story brick building known as the Central School.

It was March 1941, and Battle Ground was a village with a population in the hundreds and wooden sidewalks. The new school taught students in the first through sixth grades.

Seven decades later, Battle Ground is Clark County’s third-largest city and the Central School hasn’t held classes for 10 years. All that lives inside today is mold, grass and mildew. Soon, the beloved building will exist only in memories and pictures.

After falling into disrepair over the past decade, the Central School will be used as a training facility for local firefighters for the next two weeks and then be burned down in a controlled operation Dec. 10. Once the debris is cleared, the space will remain open for the foreseeable future, and could one day be used to hold a school district building, school officials said.

The controlled burn allows the city a chance to train firefighters while removing a deteriorated, potentially hazardous building in a cost-effective manner, city officials said.

For former Central School students, the imminent loss of their school building is bittersweet but not unexpected. The building looks tired — its carpet is shorn, ceilings are ripped and roof shingles are missing in droves in a manner that makes it look like a tornado swept through.

Fixing the decades-old building, as opposed to spending money on newer facilities, would have cost too much to make it worthwhile, school officials said.

“It’s been disheartening to see it go downhill for a while,” Somdalen, 81, said. “It’s sad to see it go, but I suppose it was the same for the older people when we left our old school.”

Somdalen recalled the buzz among her classmates as they checked out their new digs in the spring of 1941. While they had spent the entire day with one teacher at their old school, different teachers taught them different subjects at their new school, she noted.

The changes were even greater for first-grade students. The school’s two first-grade classrooms had a fireplace in them — a touch other classrooms did not have — and they also had a patio area for recreation that was separated from the older students.

“Someone must have had a soft spot for the little ones,” said Jane Wit

ter Revesz, 77, a first-grade student in March 1941. The school seemed “modern” compared with others of that era, she noted.

A sign back then stated Battle Ground’s population at 300, Witter Revesz reminisced. The city’s population has since ballooned to 17,571, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Witter Revesz’ fond memories of the Central School make her reluctant to attend Dec. 10’s controlled burn, she said.

“I don’t particularly want to see it go,” Witter Revesz said. She paused before adding, “If I can get a brick, I might do that.”

The school district plans to give away several hundred bricks from the Central School beginning at 1 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, on the school’s grounds, district spokesman Gregg Herrington said. The limit will be no more than five per person.

If any bricks remain after Thursday, they will be given away the following Friday afternoon and then Saturday afternoon during the burn, Herrington noted. Firefighters will participate in live-training at 10 a.m. Dec. 10, and then the rest of the building will be burned starting at 2 p.m.

Former Central School student Bill Tucker planned to see his first school go up in flames, if only to see which of his former classmates showed. Tucker started first grade in the fall 1941, months after the school opened.

“To me at 8 years old, it was a big building,” he said.

Tucker revisited the building several decades later as a contractor performing repairs. He, like others, wished more work could have been done to save the building, but rationalized that it would have taken “sizable money.”

“I’m not emotionally upset about it being done,” Tucker, 76, said. “I realize it’s something that needs to be done. It might be a better feeling to see it gone than to see it in disrepair.”

You can read more firsthand stories from former Central School students and teachers at http://battlegroundps.org/central-school-memories.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.