The back side of Briarcliff school in 2011. Photo by Jeffrey Cunningham
The back side of Briarcliff school in 2011. Photo by Jeffrey Cunningham


In the late 1940s, schools in Magnolia were becoming overcrowded. Magnolia and Lawton schools were simply not big enough to accommodate the size of the growing community. Local citizens assembled with school board officials in late 1947 to plan a new school in west Magnolia.

The Seattle School District had owned a piece of land on 39th Avenue West and West Dravus Street since 1929 for an intended high school; however, this meeting prompted them to decide on an elementary school instead, and Briarcliff was born.

Nile Thompson and Carolyn Marr outline the early years of Briarcliff in their essay on Specifically, they discuss the innovative design of the new school; each classroom would be a portable unit that was transportable, based on demand from existing schools in the district. This was touted at the “first of its kind in the country.”

Manpower was still short due to World War II, so progress proceeded slowly.

When it opened in September 1948, the building was still not finished, and students were even sent home twice that first school year: once because of furnace failure, and another time because of sewer failure.

In 1951, Briarcliff became an independent school all its own, with kindergarten through sixth grade; it had served as an annex to other Magnolia schools prior. It featured 10 classrooms, an auditorium, a cafeteria and a covered play court; however, it still possessed its glued-together, temporary feel. This design did offer one benefit: individual exits in each classroom. This would allow for better escape should it be needed during emergencies.

In Aleua Frare’s work “Magnolia Yesterday and Today,” the author mentions various activities of the Briarcliff PTA in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. They hosted family dinners, as well as “Fathers’ Follies” in the auditorium as fundraisers.

Thompson and Marr discuss Briarcliff’s international connections: In the late 1950s, flowering cherry-blossom trees were planted on school grounds in honor of Japanese Briarcliff students whose fathers served as consul-generals of Japan in Seattle.

The school district instituted a desegregation policy in 1978, and students were bused across town from recently closed Hawthorne School. One staff member transferred there as well, and the school and PTA were renamed Briarcliff-Hawthorne.

Briarcliff School was closed in 1984, the same year as Magnolia School on the eastern hill (building still extant). This was part of a district-wide consolidation policy.

It served as a temporary school district site in 1987-89, but thereafter was used only for school-district storage.

Over time, the site deteriorated, and people became concerned with its state. According to Monica Wooton’s essay “A Certain Clout: The Magnolia Community Club” in “Magnolia: Memories and Milestones,” the late Lindsay Brown (lawyer, mother and member of the Magnolia Community Club) raised concerns over rats and graffiti.

No doubt, in the 1990s and early 2000s, it became an outdoor refuge for bored high school kids to participate in unsavory activities on lazy summer nights. Briarcliff and its environs became a sort of makeshift park for people to walk their dogs through, complete with concrete basketball courts, spider-webbed with weed-strewn cracks.

In 2003, Bellevue-based Lexington Fine Homes purchased the 4 1/2 acres of land from the Seattle School Board for $7.3 million, and the school building was soon demolished.

The buyer’s plan to divide the land into 39 lots would prove to be controversial. On its website Lexington Fine Homes discussed the potential for the site: “Briarcliff is special because it is being designed to emulate the older neighborhood character and scale of the grand Magnolia houses built in the early 20th century. Our goal is to create a community that blends in and enhances the existing neighborhood.”

In spite of the developer’s promise to keep the housing consistent with the character of Magnolia, Briarcliff’s neighbors were unimpressed and disagreed with the design proposal. Their contention was that the housing was far too dense and would cause overcrowding in the area.

More than 120 Magnolians voiced their opposition at a hearing at Catharine Blaine school in July 2004. Magnolia residents and fellow lawyers Nick and Michele Marchi led the opposition.

“Nobody is against development there,” said Nick Marchi, in a Seattle Times story published Aug. 23, 2004.“We’re just against the amount of houses they are trying to ram down our throats.”

Magnolia Action Group’s website called the Lexington Fine Homes development a “cluster-housing, planned development.”

There were worries that traffic would become congested around the tight corners of the proposed roads, as well as outlets to Dravus Street. Construction was held up due to these complains, but after a few years, it finally commenced.

The land was graded, and in early 2009, roads were paved though the site.

Most significantly, 39th Avenue, which had been a dead-end on the south side of Briarcliff, was connected to its northern end.


In 2012, after only three houses had been built, CamWest, another Eastside developer, purchased the 36 empty properties. CamWest paid $400,000 for each parcel, totaling $14 million.

The company is currently developing Briarcliff one house at a time and selling them in the $1 million range. Its website advertises views of the Seattle skyline, access to Discovery Park, as well as the close proximity to downtown and up-and-coming South Lake Union.

With most of the land still undeveloped, only time will tell if the houses will blend into their surrounding community.

JEFFREY CUNNINGHAM is president of the Magnolia Historical Society ( To comment on this column, write to