Citizens fight government to save historic Providence Heights Issaquah campus

Jul 13, 2018, 7:28 PM | Updated: Jul 15, 2018, 10:49 pm

To a bureaucratic school district and a city, the buildings represent nothing more than an eyesore, 1960s relics that take up valuable space in a hot market. But a group of Issaquah and Sammamish historians see something more in Providence Heights — architectural beauty, tradition, and a turning point in the rights of Catholic women.

High on a hilltop between Issaquah and Sammamish, the Providence Heights campus was built long before the area became one of the most densely-populated and one of the fastest-growing in the state. The Catholic Church wanted a natural retreat to build a college for the Sisters of Providence, an order of nuns.

The ’60s were an era of great change for the Catholic Church — 1962’s Vatican II brought the church into the modern era. In keeping with this progressive spirit, the church established nuns’ colleges, so that the female clergy could attain the same kind of education as their male counterparts. Walking around Providence Heights, one can still observe chemistry labs and a garage for auto repair — fields traditionally considered to be masculine.

RELATED: Take a hike to explore Northwest history

“This was the first institution in the United States that the sisters created for the Everett Curriculum — this was a curriculum to bring the education of women up to that which was available for men,” explained Elizabeth Maupin, secretary of nonprofit Preserve Providence Heights.

“The very existence of that campus is a physical image that we can see that these women poured themselves into,” affordable housing advocate Gabriella Duncan stated. “And somebody believed in these women enough to go in there and create, and do this beautiful art, and make this amazing space. And what happens when you take something like that and take it away?”

Providence Heights: A place in art history

It is not only the significance in women’s history, however, that makes Providence Heights unique. The campus chapel boasts stained glass windows designed specifically for the sisters by late French artist Gabriel Loire, whose works can be found in prominent places of worship on every inhabited continent. The Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England; the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, Germany; St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa can be counted among Loire’s creations.

“It is an incredible honor that Gabriel Loire was chosen to design these windows, particularly when you think that his work is seen throughout the world, in cathedrals throughout the world,” said Michelle Bunn, a member of Preserve Providence Heights. “And to think that here, in little old Issaquah, we have an artist of that stature.”

A resident of Chartres, France — which bills itself as the stained glass capital of the world, on account of its renowned medieval cathedral — Loire used a style of stained glass known as dalle de verre, in which chunks of glass are set in concrete rather than lead. Each of the 14 dalle de verre windows in Providence Heights’ chapel stands 30 feet tall and depicts scenes from the Bible and the works of the Sisters of Providence.

“It’s like making a mosaic more than painting on glass,” described Susan Hass, president of Preserve Providence Heights.

A district in need of schools

After being sold first to the Lutheran Bible Institute in the 1980s, the campus was purchased in 2008 by Churchome, formerly known as the City Church, based out of Kirkland but has locations throughout the Seattle area, Los Angeles, and Mexico. Churchome claimed, however, that the property became too expensive to keep up, and soon began looking for a buyer.

Struggling to find an appropriate piece of land for a fourth high school in a district that is filling up, skyrocketing in value, and hemmed in by geographic restrictions as well as official ones (the Growth Management Act forbids the building of new schools beyond the designated Urban Growth Area, just outside of Issaquah), the Issaquah School District set its eyes on the Providence Heights campus as the perfect location for a new school — situated in the center of the district, between Issaquah and Sammamish, with enough flat space for sports fields.

At a June 2017 Issaquah School Board meeting, Jake Kuper, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board that the district had conducted “an exhaustive property search” of potential sites, and that Providence Heights remained the only feasible option.

However, as the district remains committed to the constitutional separation of church and state, Kuper said that keeping the buildings and therefore educating children in religious buildings would not be possible.

The district voted in 2016 to condemn the property as the site for a high school and elementary school, after an offer that it made was rejected by Churchome. Churchome had previously been in discussion with Brixton Homes to put a high-end housing development on the site.

Legal timeline

In spring 2017, the City of Issaquah granted Churchome a demolition permit, setting off a legal roller coaster. Hundreds of people from around the Eastside and Seattle sent the city letters pleading that the campus — in particular the Gabriel Loire windows — be saved. Many of the letters compared the chapel and its windows to the treasures of Europe, preserved for centuries.

“Europe has become quite secular … but yet they are visited by millions of tourists who would like to see a bit and feel a bit of what Europe used to be like,” Bunn said. “And I feel that that’s another reason why saving particularly this chapel is so important.”

In addition to encompassing members from around the Eastside, the Sammamish Heritage Society was supported by local and statewide preservation programs such as the Washington Trust for Historic Presentation, the King County Historic Preservation Program, Historic Seattle, and the Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, which stated in a letter to the City of Issaquah that Providence Heights was “eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.”

During the summer of 2017, the Sammamish Heritage Society, the historic preservation group that preceeded Preserve Providence Heights, successfully appealed the permit with Hearing Examiner Ted Hunter, who ordered the city to go back and take a closer look at the case. Hunter largely based his decision on the City of Issaquah landmark status bestowed on Providence Heights by the Issaquah Landmarks Commission in July 2017.

Hunter’s order did not come to fruition, however — Churchome sued the City of Issaquah, resulting in the city handing over all rights to demolish the property, regardless of the landmark designation. Churchome claimed that its First Amendment right to Freedom of Religion was violated by being prevented from tearing down the campus.

The settlement was reached in a closed council meeting in October 2017 without the chance for public input.

“It wasn’t done in an open manner … people generally found out about it after the settlement had already happened,” Hass stated.

Additionally, the preservationists disputed the question of whether or not Churchome could actually claim to be using the buildings for religious purposes. A 2016 audit by the Washington State Department of Revenue ordered Churchome — which, as a religious organization, would normally be exempt from property tax — to pay back taxes on some of the Providence Heights buildings because they showed “no signs of recent use,” according to auditor Ras Roberts.

It was after the settlement that Preserve Providence Heights formed out of a group of Sammamish Heritage Society members who wanted to focus their efforts and resources specifically on the campus. PPH filed a motion with the King County Superior Court to vacate the judgment, which was granted by Judge Julie Spector on the grounds that the city and Churchome “collaborated in secret to develop a proposed order and judgment and gave no one else any notice that the collaboration was underway.”

Judge Ken Schubert agreed at a January 2018 hearing, telling the Churchome and City of Issaquah attorneys that they were close to violating the Rules of Professional Conduct due to the fact that they had settled with an ex parte commissioner (usually reserved for simpler cases) without informing the commissioner of the complexities of the case (such as the fact that a group of preservationists stood against the demolition).

But spring 2018 looked like a rerun of spring 2017, with the City of Issaquah once again issuing a mitigated determination of non-significance to Churchome, effectively saying that demolishing the campus would have no significant detrimental impacts on the historic, cultural, or natural environment.  Once again, Preserve Providence Heights appealed the decision over the course of three hearings in June.

Looking to the future

Now the group awaits Hunter’s decision, due within the next two weeks.

If the city’s mitigated determination of non-significance is upheld, the document does stipulate that the stained glass windows must be taken out and preserved before demolition. Representatives from Providence Health have testified that they would like to keep the windows as a reminder of their founders.

However, this is no guarantee that the windows would be safe — architectural experts have stated in the appeal hearings that due to the A-frame shape of the church, the windows are actually helping to support the walls, meaning that attempting to remove them would likely destroy them.

“The physics of John Maloney’s architecture interconnecting physically with the windows would mean that the chances of removing these windows successfully was very low,” Bunn said, summarizing the findings.

And so, much as it has for the back-and-forth court battles over the past year-and-a-half, the survival of the entire campus, church, and windows treads a very narrow path.

If it is preserved, members of PPH envision the campus in many different roles — school, concert hall for local symphonies, museum of the Sisters of Providence, conference center, park, and — using the 200 dorm rooms — affordable housing in a community where expensive cost-of-living is routinely a topic of council meetings.

“Providence Heights College is a remarkable asset for the community, the state, and beyond,” stated U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Program Manager Lauren McCroskey at the appeal hearing. “It has the potential to serve as an amazing model of the pursuit of excellence that women in this particular case accomplished … this is an amazing and tangible model right in front of us that can tell a story of how much women can achieve when they are given the opportunities.”

To learn more about how to contribute to the effort or to recommend a buyer for the property, visit PPH’s website.

Churchome has not responded to requests for comment.

Dori Monson Show

Dori Monson

Dori Monson stage show...

MyNorthwest Staff

Watch: Dori Monson’s ‘What are the Odds?’ stage show

In 2019, Dori Monson hosted a stage show - 'What are the Odds?' - which introduced you to the people who helped shape his improbable career.

1 year ago

Dori Monson welcomes the Moose back to KIRO. Follow @

MyNorthwest Staff

A collection of the all-time best Dori Monson stories

With the passing of Dori Monson, a collection of some of his top stories to remember all the hard work Dori brought to Seattle.

1 year ago

Alaska, fishing...

KIRO Newsradio staff

Listen: Friends, colleagues offer tribute to KIRO Newsradio’s Dori Monson

All day Monday, KIRO Newsradio's John Curley talked to friends, news makers, and more in tribute to Dori Monson.

1 year ago

Dori Monson Shorecrest...

Dori Monson Show

How to support charities reflecting Dori Monson’s values, passions

In tribute to Dori Monson, learn more about how you can support these three charities which best reflect his values, passions, and advocacy.

1 year ago

From left, Producer Nicole Thompson and KIRO host Dori Monson. (Courtesy of the Monson family)...

MyNorthwest Staff

Broadcasters, politicians, coworkers and friends remember Dori Monson

Dori Monson, a longtime KIRO Newsradio host, passed away Saturday. He is remembered by public figures, broadcasters, coworkers, and listeners.

1 year ago

Dori Monson...

MyNorthwest Staff

Longtime KIRO Newsradio host Dori Monson dies at age 61

We are deeply saddened to announce Dori Monson's sudden passing on Saturday, December 31, 2022, at a Seattle hospital.

1 year ago

Citizens fight government to save historic Providence Heights Issaquah campus