Gilman Village celebrates over 50 years of charm and growth

When the village began operating, its rising success depended mostly upon women.

In contrast to most shopping centers is Gilman Village’s ability to become a successful creation without any strategic planning, studies or analysis typical of modern developments. Instead, the Issaquah shopping center was built on a couple’s imagination and over 50 years of continuous evolution.

The idea began in 1972 when Safeway decided to develop a shop on Issaquah land. Clearing the land required the incineration of three houses dating back as far as 1909.

However, Betty Konarski, owner of The Country Mouse — a shop operating in one of the buildings — offered an idea to local developer and lawyer Marvin Mohl. The idea seemed odd to some, but sparked Marvin’s interest: take old houses to a new plot of land and create a unique shopping center.

“My father is pretty damned eccentric, and my mother went right along with him,” said Ellen Mohl, daughter of Marvin and Ruth Mohl.

Taking Konarski’s idea, on an early October morning, before the city awoke and traffic filled Front Street, a crew transported the first building on a flatbed truck onto new land, with two other houses following.

Each 19th- and early 20th-century building relocated to the Village carries a distinctive narrative and characteristics. However, they all shared a similar reason for relocation: as Issaquah was itching for modernization, the older buildings became a glaring reflection of the past and required removal.

Ellen emphasized there was no precise formula or predetermined plan for the development. The approach was far more organic.

“Developments that happen today, somebody has this plan, they grow it out, they go to the city … everything is pre-planned. That’s not how the Village grew,” she said.

After the first successful installment of buildings onto Marvin and Ruth’s seven-acre land, the couple continued to snatch up unwanted houses until the development met with the Issaquah Creek in 1984.

The couple, along with architect El Baylis and landscape architect Richard Haag, renovated and combined the unlikely pairing of 27 historic buildings — later building two more shops — making up a retail area in a park-like setting, according to the Gilman Village newspaper.

Although this was not the first development the couple had contributed to the Issaquah community, the concept was unlike anything the couple or any Issaquah developer had ever done.

Marvin first dipped his toes in local development when he bought a 160-acre former dairy farm in Issaquah and developed the Sycamore neighborhood.

A short time later, the couple began developing the first shopping center in Issaquah, formerly known as the Hi-Lo Center.

“[Marvin] was building a community he wanted to see,” Ellen said.

When the couple and their two children moved to Issaquah in 1963, Ellen recalled her mother asking where she would shop for groceries, so her father developed a shopping center. When her sister, Lucy Mohl, was moving up to preschool, their father built a preschool, and when a hardware store was required, he built that too.

Growth of Gilman Village

When Gilman Village began operating, its rising success depended mostly upon women who, at least partly, ran 25 out of the 27 shops.

“When the Village started, women couldn’t even get a line of credit,” Ellen recalled.

Since its establishment, women have owned more than three-quarters of the 300-plus shops that have operated within the Village.

“In every case, the wife has been active in the business. The husbands have worked with the wives more than the wives with the husbands,” Marvin told The Daily Journal-American in 1976.

Throughout the years, the Village has provided platforms not only for women, but for small businesses to grow and succeed.

One way the village does this is through its low rental structure.

“The idea behind it was if we give people a chance to start and we don’t kill them with their rent, then they can invest in their businesses, and the village will grow and improve,” Ellen said.

Due to this structure, businesses such as Made in Washington got their start in the Village and became a statewide chain retail store. Other businesses, such as Lucky You, owned by Denise Jensen, were able to take a chance and create their sister store, Lucky Home.

By implementing systems such as a low rental structure, the Village has had the ability to grow methodically. However, external forces, such as the ever-changing world, have also driven the Village to adapt.

Using the rise in technology as an example, Ellen said the internet and services like Amazon have shifted how people spend their time and money, pushing the staff to reimagine the Village.

“We realized what we really were was a neighborhood,” she said. “We have a preschool. We have coffee shops, we have restaurants, we have the retail stores, we have the deck where the community can gather, we have all these different places, and we became a neighborhood.”

While other businesses and developers focused on keeping up with the times and building income-generating forces, the Village continued to focus on growth through a different lens.

“You can buy things … because [the Village] doesn’t survive without it. But it’s not just about how fast you can turn in and out stuff,” she said. “It’s a different relationship. When you concern yourself with the people, the merchants, everybody, it takes on more of a community flavor.”

Throughout the Village’s 50 years of charm and change, the goal of the shopping center turned neighborhood isn’t budging.

“Gilman Village should be an expression of the nostalgia we feel for an older, simpler time,” Marvin wrote in an Issaquah Press letter to the editor in 1973, “for things that are handmade, food that is real, friendly stores where we know the owner.”

The last set of houses arrived in 1983, completing the development. (Photo courtesy of the Gilman Village)
(Photo courtesy of the Gilman Village)
Some buildings, such as Nick's Shop, built in the 1920s, and Pedegana House in 1977, were combined once moved to Gilman Village. Each building has been renovated with modern materials, some rebuilt with a second story and old fixtures repurposed into new uses — such as garages adjoined to the older buildings became windows that slide open on warm days. (Photo courtesy of the Gilman Village)