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Thursday, February 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Cooper School's next chapter: an arts center

Seattle Times staff reporter

For a building that some real-estate agents didn't consider worth saving, the old Cooper School in West Seattle has turned out to be quite the catch for community leaders and philanthropists.

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has donated $350,000 and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given $500,000 to a nonprofit developer, Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association (DNDA), to turn this abandoned school at 4408 Delridge Way S.W. into a major cultural-arts center.

The group will announce Saturday that it has purchased the 2.5-acre property for $525,000 from the Seattle School District and has raised nearly $11 million to renovate the building to house artists, theater groups and child-advocacy organizations.

DNDA already has leased all its office space and has received commitments from the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Seattle Symphony to perform and hold workshops for at-risk youths, said Paul Fischburg, DNDA's executive director.

The idea is to expose students from poor families and the diverse neighborhoods to the arts, he said.

"We are hoping Cooper School becomes a place where everybody goes to participate in the cultural life of the community," he said yesterday.

The Historic Cooper Cultural Arts Center will be ready by December, DNDA administrators said.

The project will include converting the top two floors and the attic into 36 live-in and work studios for low-income artists. About 120 artists have applied already, administrators said.

The main floor will include tenants from the nonprofit art groups Twelfth Night Productions, Arts Corps and The Power of Hope and educational groups Nature Consortium and Southwest Interagency Academy.

The facility will include a 150-seat theater and an art gallery. The performing-arts theater will be available for community shows.

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"We can't wait. It will be a ... cultural hub. I think the energy level will just be amazing there," said Nancy Whitlock, executive director of Nature Consortium, which organizes youth-conservation projects.

The school was built in 1917 to serve families of steel workers. Seattle Public Schools' first African-American teacher, Thelma Dewitty, taught there in 1947.

After the school closed in 1989 because of seismic-safety concerns, Delridge residents were upset that the Counselors of Real Estate, an exclusive organization of real-estate advisers, concluded the building wasn't worth saving, Fischburg said.

This school has historical significance, Fischburg said.

To save the historic school, DNDA raised nearly $11 million through local businesses, long-time residents and foundations. The group also received city, state and federal funding.

The money will go toward seismic upgrades, building an elevator, removing asbestos and adding 36 kitchens and bathrooms.

Founded in 1996, DNDA is a development group that focuses on building affordable housing, promoting diverse neighborhoods and revitalizing the West Seattle community.

The Cooper School is one of three major projects DNDA is undertaking. The group completed 21 town houses in the 6700 block of Delridge Way Southwest for low-income families that will be occupied in July.

DNDA will build a Food Bank & Community Resource Center at 35th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Morgan Street. The food-bank building, which will be ready next year, will include a 34-unit apartment building for low-income families.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656

or tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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