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Issaquah’s Providence Heights facing demolition

Providence Heights was built in the early 1960s, and preservationists consider it significant and worthy of being “adaptively reused." (Courtesy of Washington Trust for Historic Preservation)

Historic preservation activists are hoping Good Friday will mean new life for the old Providence Heights College on the Sammamish Plateau in Issaquah.

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The deadline is Friday (April 14) for public comments on an application that was filed by the building’s owner, The City Church, to secure a demolition permit from the City of Issaquah.

Providence Heights was built in the early 1960s, and preservationists consider it significant and worthy of being “adaptively reused” – that is, converted to some other purpose, but kept intact rather than being demolished. The City Church occupied the campus for many years, but it is currently vacant.

Washington Trust for Historic Preservation (WTHP), a statewide group, previously added Providence Heights to its Most Endangered List.

Jennifer Mortenson, WTHP’s preservation services coordinator, said Thursday that the WTHP believes Providence Heights could be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and that the campus should, at the very least, undergo more scrutiny and study before a demolition permit is issued.

The WTHP website cites historical and architectural reasons for Providence Heights’ significance:

“Providence Heights College and Provincialate was founded in 1961 as a response to the Sister Formation Conference … an intercongregational effort to enhance the professional lives of religious women. Activities of the associated ‘Sister Formation Movement’ included promotion of college education for sisters. Providence Heights College was one of only two institutions in the nation established at that time specifically for this purpose … the campus is a remarkable union of multiple educational, residential, and spiritual buildings, that used the finest contemporary materials available, with deft Mid-Twentieth-Century styling and bold engineering.”

The Sammamish Heritage Society has led local efforts to preserve Providence Heights, including the chapel, which includes several large stained-glass windows. The non-profit society’s volunteer president Eirlys Vanderhoff said Thursday that her group is eager to collaborate with The City Church to come up with a creative solution.

Meanwhile, the Issaquah School District reportedly is interested in purchasing the property – which comprises multiple acres – as a potential site for construction of two new schools.

Thanks to a Seattle legal case decided years ago by the Washington State Supreme Court, religious institutions in the Evergreen State are not bound by historic preservation ordinances on the grounds that these ordinances restrict free speech and religious expression.

The Sammamish Heritage Society previously prepared and submitted an application to the City of Issaquah’s historic preservation program (which is managed by King County) seeking landmark designation of Providence Heights, but later withdrew the paperwork.

Eirlys Vanderhoff says the society withdrew the application because its members became discouraged by the possibility that The City Church might take legal action. Vanderhoff says that this is a risk that the all-volunteer Sammamish Heritage Society couldn’t afford to take.

Preservationists say that it appears that by seeking a demolition permit, The City Church is moving to demolish Providence Heights to make the real estate more attractive to potential buyers. Unlike The City Church, the Issaquah School District – or any non-religious buyer – would be subject to historic preservation ordinances. The land at Providence Heights is likely worth tens of millions of dollars.

KIRO Radio reached out to The City Church counsel Troy Anderson and Issaquah School District CFO Jake Kuper on Thursday, but they did not respond.

To weigh in on the future of Providence Heights and the demolition permit application, email your comments before 5 p.m. Friday, April 14 to Keith Niven, Economic Development & Development Services director for the City of Issaquah: keithn@issaquahwa.gov

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