Student Housing Reimagined

Old Cheney High School is undergoing a unique transformation into modern student housing

By Brad Brown, Managing Editor

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The big Gothic brick building laden with smashed windows across the street from Showalter Hall has been the center of renovation conversations in Cheney over the past few years.

After three earlier proposals for purchasing the old high school fell through, a team of Seattle-based developers has taken on the challenge of breathing new life into the historic building by transforming it into student housing.

“I get really excited about this building,” said Sean Barnes, manager for Eastmark Capital Group.

Thirty-six apartment units with about 90 bedrooms converted from classroom spaces are scheduled to be available for students this upcoming fall quarter. The gymnasium, which is bordered by a second floor balcony, will be re-purposed as a social game room.

Also, part of the nearby auditorium will be converted into a study area and will preserve proscenium and some of the wooden seating to try and retain the historical feel.

The $750,000 purchase by Barnes and Eastmark Capital Group was made with an intent to retain as many of the historical features as possible. From an exterior perspective, the brick and terracotta decorative features fit the historical feel on College Avenue up to Showalter Hall. For the interior, a lot of the historical features will remain in place, including the terrazzo flooring, hallway lockers and some of the bleachers.   

“It’s very much a piece of that kind of post World War I, small town public facility architecture,” said university archivist Charles Mutschler, Ph.D., who also attended the high school in his youth. “In that sense, keeping that is a real advantage because it keeps that historic feel that you have coming up College Avenue, where you’ve got the Fisher Building, the Philena apartments and then the ceremonial entryway into campus of the administration building at the end of the walk. It’s very traditional and not something that every school has.”

Old Cheney High School, also known as the Fisher Building, was built in 1929 and operated as Cheney’s high school until 1967, when the new high school took over. It later served as a middle school and as a school administration building until eventually being abandoned altogether.

To acknowledge the historical significance and provide tax incentives, the Cheney City Council voted to place the high school on the Cheney Register of Historic Places, a list that currently contains 22 properties.

When Barnes first came to Cheney, he said he appreciated the building and its resemblance to an elementary school he attended and that he always envisioned it as student housing.

Mutschler also agreed that converting the building into housing is a good use of the property.

“I think it makes perfect sense,” said Mutschler. “You’re right next to the campus, my goodness. In a lot of ways this is one of the best possible outcomes. I think the possibility of trying to rework the building for use as small business spaces, leasing out offices or some such, it’s a possibility but I just don’t think it would be as successful as housing.”

Ann Fisher Hehn, whose father the building is named after, had an opposing viewpoint about the use of the historic building.

“It will be destroyed, students do that in this town,” Hehn said to the Cheney Free Press after the building was sold in 2016.

While there may be some concerns about the preservation of the building, the property appears to be in good hands.

Craig Conrad of MMEC Architects, who is in charge of the project design, said at a Cheney City Council meeting that he has experience with buildings like this, and his firm was involved with the Hargreaves Hall remodel on the EWU campus. Additionally, Barnes has stated his interest in retaining as much of the historical features as possible.

The project is well underway and is scheduled to be available for students to move in come September. When completed, these apartments will provide students with a unique and high quality living arrangement in a prime location between the EWU campus and downtown Cheney.