The Issaquah School District unanimously voted at the July 13 meeting to move forward with the condemnation of the Providence Heights Campus as a site for a new high school and elementary school.
The district’s planned acquisition of the site leaves the fate of the property’s historic chapel and famous stained glass windows in the balance.
The campus, which the Sisters of Providence opened as a college for nuns in 1961, is now owned by The City Church of Kirkland.
Because April’s school bond passage allowed the district to build four new schools (two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school), the district has been scouring the area looking for spaces that are large enough. With 2,000 new students joining the district in just the past four years and another estimated 1,500 to 2,000 by the year 2021, building new schools is an urgent priority for the district.
“We’ve done an exhausted search [for property] for years,” Issaquah School District Finance Manager Jake Kuper told the Reporter. “It’s the best opportunity we’ve seen.”
While no one at the meeting disputed the district’s need for new schools, residents did ask the School Board to be mindful of preserving the art and architecture of the church, in particular its one-of-a-kind stained glass windows.
The 30-foot windows, which depict Bible scenes, were designed by celebrated late artist Gabriel Loire of Chartres, France, the city famous for its medieval cathedral. Loire has created over 800 windows that can be found in places of worship on every continent, including the Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, Germany.
Loire was unique for using a technique called dalle de verre or “slab glass,” where an artist sets thick pieces of glass in concrete rather than lead.
“They are a fabulous art piece that is irreplaceable, and they are the creation of a world-renowned artist,” Steve Thues, the Sammamish Heritage Society’s director of outreach, told the Reporter. “They shouldn’t be nonchalantly destroyed any more than you would destroy an oil painting.”
However, school district representatives were not so sure about keeping overtly Catholic art in a public school.
“Having windows with a religious message on a school campus could be tricky,” Kuper said.
He added that the district has not yet been able to inspect the site, and is therefore at this time unsure whether the windows could potentially be moved or not.
“It doesn’t mean that a public school on that campus would amount to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the school district,” Mary Moore, a member of the Sammamish Heritage Society, said at the meeting. “I think the School Board members are smart enough to see that. What goes on inside of a parochial schoolroom in a traditional secular education taught by a secular teacher to a secular group of students — for those students, that room is … a secular schoolroom.”
Pointing out schools in other parts of the country that have used old religious buildings as an answer to urban growth, Moore called the use of the site a “great opportunity to teach students … the ultimate [lesson] in recycling.”
‘There are different features that have been talked about and will be further reviewed,” assured Denise Stiffarm, the district’s land use attorney.
However, she pointed out that the property “is not listed on any [historic] register, local, state or national.”
The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation named the Providence Heights Campus as one of the seven most endangered historic properties in the state. In March, the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation named the campus as eligible for listing.
This means that if an application to put the site on a historic register was submitted, the department would look at it.
“The chapel itself is unique — a 20th century take on Gothic architecture,” Thues said. “There are not many structures with that style.”
Claradell Shedd of Sammamish said during the meeting that Loire’s son told Sammamish residents that his family is “bereaved and grieved at the potential of this historic United States symbol potentially being demolished.”
Kuper called the citizens’ comments “interesting testimony,” and said that all residents were “entitled to their opinion.” Though the district is proceeding with the property acquisition, he said that everyone involved is going to “be respectful as we move forward.”
According to the state’s Growth Management Act, any new schools must be built inside King County’s urban growth boundary. This regulation greatly tightens the available space in Issaquah for something as large as a school campus. Additionally, the district’s hilly geography makes the school search difficult.
But Kuper said the Providence Heights property makes “geographical sense” because it is “flat in topography and right in between the two overcrowded high schools.”
Skyline and Issaquah high schools, which together total 4,800 students, are among the state’s 10 biggest high schools, Kuper said. He projected that the potential high school at Providence Heights would hold between 1,400 and 1,500 students, while the elementary school would hold 600.
District representatives said that the board’s decision is just the most preliminary part of the process, and nothing is as of yet set in stone. If everything does move forward as projected, the new schools would likely open in 2020 or 2021, Kuper said.