14 speakers urge Landmarks Commission to save Providence Heights

Every seat was full and several people were standing along the back wall of the Issaquah City Hall’s Eagle Room on Feb. 23 at the Issaquah Landmarks and Heritage Commission’s public hearing.

Ironically, it was not an item up for official public hearing that brought out the crowds, as the Sammamish Heritage Society had the previous week withdrawn its application for the Providence Heights campus to be formally recognized as a city of Issaquah historic landmark.

It was stated at the meeting that this decision was made because of a fear of legal action by the property’s owner, The City Church of Kirkland.

However, the withdrawn application did not stop over a dozen supporters from coming out to tell the 10-member Landmarks Commission why they felt the property was unique and worth saving.

While a formal public hearing was no longer allowed in light of the withdrawn application, the commission said that anyone who wished to make a statement about the property on the record would be allowed to speak during public comment as a way for the commission to gather more information about the property.

The Issaquah School Board voted last year to move forward with condemning the property, with the intention to build a high school there in the future.

The Heritage Society Board of Directors told the Reporter that it fully intends to re-submit the application after seeking legal counsel.

The campus was originally built as a college for the Sisters of Providence, a worldwide order of nuns. While speakers were supportive of saving the entire property, the building that they focused on the most was the campus’s chapel, which contains 14 stained glass windows created by late, world-famous French artist Gabriel Loire especially for the Issaquah campus. The district has said that it does not know if windows that contain biblical images could be kept in a public school.

Nearly all of the 14 people who spoke talked of their experiences traveling in Europe, and compared the 30-foot stained glass windows of the Providence Heights chapel to the artwork found in cities such as Vienna.

“It’s historically, architecturally and artistically significant,” said Diana Kelsey Kutas of Sammamish. “I want my children to be able to return to Issaquah and Sammamish … and see and visit the history of the community in which they grew up.”

Loire lived in Chartres, France, a city famous for its medieval, stained-glass-filled cathedral, and made the windows in his signature dalle de verre style, setting thick pieces of colored glass in concrete rather than lead.

“Gabriel Loire was known throughout the world for his architecture,” said Mary Fricke of Issaquah. “What a shame to tear it down.”

“I’ve traveled … and seen exquisite examples of artwork and stained glass. It just blows your mind,” said Jeff Matson of Issaquah. “[Providence Heights] is a treasure we cannot afford to lose.”

The speakers pointed out that historic buildings in Europe are not torn down in favor of modern replacements, and bemoaned what they saw as the West Coast’s lack of appreciation for old architecture.

“Budapest did not tear down its historic parliament building after years of neglect under the Communist occupation,” Kutas said.

Mark Miller of Issaquah said that friends of his in Europe “wonder why we [in America] don’t hold on to things … we don’t have an appreciation of the past.”

“We don’t seem to be able to keep as much as we need to,” agreed Steve Pereira of Issaquah.

“We are a waste society,” stated Rosemary Carrel, secretary for the society. “If it can’t be used as it is, we tear it down rather than think of how it can be re-used.”

Several people also referenced the importance of a building set up to educate young women at a time when there were fewer academic opportunities open to females.

“It was built to give women the same education as men,” Fricke said.

Pereira noted that the building was very instrumental in women’s history, giving females a different route “from just being housewives.”

“We need to make sure those things of historical significance get remembered,” he said.

Steve Thues of Sammamish explained that removing the windows would be “a multimillion-dollar effort” and that it would be better to use the church for a different purpose on the school campus.

Matson suggested that the district reuse the church as “a magnificent concert hall, art gallery, library or lecture hall.” Several other speakers echoed the idea of the church being incorporated as an academic building in some way.

The commission thanked the speakers for their input and promised to take their words into account if the application is resubmitted.

Nicole Jennings/staff photo                                The Issaquah City Hall’s Eagle Room was packed with people wanting to hear the statements on the Providence Heights campus.

Nicole Jennings/staff photo The Issaquah City Hall’s Eagle Room was packed with people wanting to hear the statements on the Providence Heights campus.