The first round of the appeal hearing for the Providence Heights campus in the Issaquah City Council Chambers saw six witnesses give testimony over a seven-hour period on Tuesday, in a conversation that touched on everything from the history of the Catholic Church to carbon dioxide emissions.
At 5 p.m., after concluding testimonies for the day, it was announced that the appeal hearing would continue on Tuesday, Aug. 8 from 1:30-6 p.m.
The hearing, which was attended by approximately 50 people, appealed the Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance and subsequent demolition permit issued by the city of Issaquah to Plateau Campus, LLC, a subsidiary of The City Church of Kirkland this spring. The City Church wishes to demolish the former nuns’ college and sell the property.
The Providence Heights campus was originally built as a college for the Sisters of Providence in the 1960s, but was later sold to the Lutheran Bible Institute and, in 2008, to The City Church. Last year, the Issaquah School District voted to proceed with condemnation of the property, with the intent to eventually put a fourth high school for the district on the property.
In April of this year, the city of Issaquah issued the City Church with a Determination of Non-Significance, essentially stating that demolishing the campus would not significantly harm the environment in any way, including culturally.
After receiving over 100 letters and over 300 names on a petition from local residents, the city changed the DNS to an MDNS, adding the stipulation that the chapel’s 14, unique stained glass windows, designed by the late, world-renowned French artist Gabriel Loire, must be removed and safely preserved before the wrecking ball comes in.
A group of hundreds of Eastside residents have banded together in a grass roots effort through the Sammamish Heritage Society, pooling their time, expertise and funds to save the historic church and school buildings. On Tuesday, the group got its say in the courtroom by calling witnesses from different fields to explain in detail why the campus should not be torn down.
Julie Koler, a preservation consultant and former manager of the King County Preservation Program, said that from the first moment she stepped on the campus, “it was abundantly clear” that the property should not only be designated a local landmark, but should also be placed on the National Historic Register; she noted wryly that the latter had probably not occurred because the property owner’s consent is a requirement for such a listing.
Sadly, Koler said, there are many properties in Washington state deserving of historic protection that have gone unrecognized.
“We have only scratched the surface of designating those properties that are significant in our history,” she said.
Koler stated that Providence Heights’ historic significance stems from the fact that the campus represents a decision by the Catholic Church to provide female clerical members with an education equal to their male counterparts. The campus, she argued, is an artifact of a time of great change and progress in the Catholic Church.
“When the Sisters of Providence envisioned this college on the hill … it exemplified their dreams of equality for these sisters who had devoted their lives to charity work,” Koler said.
Koler described how the seven buildings that make up the campus “melded the dreams of this religious group with architecture.” While the chapel’s more traditional elements, such as the nave and the “Gothic style of Medieval Europe,” seem to pay tribute to the past, there are also aspects of the campus that show the forward-thinking direction of the church at the time.
Koler also pointed out that the 30-foot stained glass windows — which were designed in Loire’s signature dalle de verre style, setting thick chunks of glass in concrete rather than lead — would not survive being moved.
“The windows themselves cannot be extracted and taken apart,” Koler said.
Koler added that from a stylistic standpoint, the windows were meant to be one with the structure, and that separating the windows from the chapel would cause them to “lose their raison d’être.”
Tyler Sprague, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Washington, agreed with Koler, explaining that, from the way in which the windows are set in the structure, they are actually helping to hold up the A-frame church. He described the church’s structure as being “like a folded piece of paper,” noting that it has no structural beams.
“There’s a tight integration between the structural form of the building and the space where the windows are,” Sprague said.
Sprague also pointed out the historical significance of the structural engineering firm that built Providence Heights, noting that Worthington, Skilling, Helle and Jackson was the most renowned structural engineering firm to come out of Seattle and the only such firm in the city to survive the Great Depression.
Cherilyn Widell, a historic preservationist from Chestertown, Maryland who specializes in environmental aspects of architecture, brought the topic of saving the environment to the conversation in her telephone call testimony.
“Reuse of an existing building is always the greenest alternative [as opposed to demolition],” she said.
Widell stated that according to calculations, demolishing Providence Heights would release 23,652 metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The Providence Heights advocates argued that the campus represents a local treasure, and that such historic structures are venerated in Europe and on the East Coast of the U.S.
“We do not understand our history and therefore we do not embrace it,” Koler said.