The Sammamish Heritage Society may have received the game changer it needed in the demolition permit appeal for the Providence Heights campus; the entire property was named a city of Issaquah landmark in a unanimous vote by the Landmarks Commission on July 27.
The former college of the Sisters of Providence was put forward to the Landmarks Commission by the Heritage Society, which has been working for years to save the property from demolition by its current owner, Plateau Campus LLC, a subsidiary of The City Church of Kirkland.
The society is currently in the middle of an appeals process to undo the demolition permit the city of Issaquah granted to The City Church in May. The first day of the appeal hearing took place July 11, and is scheduled to resume Aug. 8.
A year ago, the Issaquah School Board voted to move forward with the condemnation process for the property, with the intent of putting a high school there.
This spring, the city of Issaquah issued The City Church with a Determination of Non-Significance, stating that tearing down the school and chapel would not detrimentally affect the area in any ecological, historical or cultural way.
After receiving over 100 letters and over 300 signatures on a petition, the city changed its decision to a Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance, stating that the chapel’s 14, 30-foot-high stained glass windows must be safely removed and preserved before demolition.
And the windows, which were designed by world-renowned French artist Gabriel Loire — who has created stained glass for significant places of worship on every inhabited continent — were a central part of the discussion at the July 27 meeting, though by no means the only unique feature of the property brought up by the 13 people who spoke in favor of landmarking the campus.
Nearly all of the speakers pointed to the significance of the reforms in the Catholic Church that allowed a college to be built to help equalize the female and male members of the clergy.
“They created a really remarkable space and there is not anything else like that in this region,” said Lauren McCroskey, a consultant with the Heritage Society, in her opening statement.
She called the campus “an outstanding example of the educational advancement for women,” emphasizing that the campus is a surviving testament to the history of women’s rights.
“[The buildings] were designed and built with the finest materials, finest design minds of the time. That speaks to the mission — this was a way for the Sisters to carve out an education for themselves,” McCroskey said.
Plateau Campus’ attorney, Chuck Maduell — one of two people who spoke against preserving the campus — responded that due to the campus’ size and distance from The City Church’s Kirkland base, it is too expensive to maintain and “not well suited to religious purposes.” According to Maduell, maintaining the campus costs The City Church around $100,000 per month.
Additionally, Maduell stated that there is a constitutional aspect to the debate. Not allowing the City Church to tear down the religious structure “would violate The City Church’s First Amendment right to freely exercise religion,” Maduell said.
Troy Anderson, associate pastor and general counsel at The City Church, took aim at the people working to stop the demolition of the church, declaring that they are undermining the “public good” of the region.
“The Sammamish Heritage Society is so focused on saving these buildings that they’ve lost sight of the public good,” Anderson stated, claiming that the campus is the “only property in the school district big enough to house [the students].”
At the June 28 Issaquah School Board meeting, Jake Kuper, the district’s chief of finance, said that there were few properties available to be used for new schools, but did not indicate that there was only one such property left.
“It isn’t a question of whether or not we support schools, it’s a question of what we want our students to learn,” said longtime Issaquah resident Steve Pereira during the public comment session.
He pointed to the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s performance of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which was being performed that evening at the Issaquah Community Center lawn, as an example of revering the past, and said that schools should continue to teach students about historic works of art, such as the Providence Heights campus.
But Anderson nixed the idea of re-using the buildings to educate students on the former nun’s campus.
“There’s no way for a chapel with clearly religious symbolism to be integrated into a public school campus,” he said.
“The fact is, a lot of our history is religious history,” McCroskey countered. “Providence Heights transcends that association with religion. It’s a universal story, a story of women’s history, women’s education and it’s amazing we have it right here.”
“A lot of the structures Europe has seen fit to preserve have been structures of religious and artistic significance,” Issaquah resident Mark Miller pointed out.
Many of the speakers in favor of saving Providence Heights bemoaned the waste society of America and noted that Americans do not tend to honor and protect historic buildings the way that European countries have done.
“There are not many places in the world that tend to destroy their heritage as much as America,” John Benjamin said.
Maduell said that The City Church had never intended to destroy the stained glass windows, and had entered into an agreement with the Sisters of Providence to preserve the windows and give them to the order of nuns that had originally owned them long before being ordered by the city to do so.
“We agree they’re beautiful … Let’s display them. Put them somewhere that the public can enjoy them,” Maduell said.
However, at the July 11 appeal hearing, Tyler Sprague, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Washington, said that taking the windows out would be impossible without causing the entire structure to collapse, as the windows are helping to hold up the A-frame church.
The preservationists spoke of the need to save elements of our history for future generations.
“If we don’t preserve these things for our children and grandchildren, what will they have?” Miller said.
“You just can’t keep destroying everything people have created just because you want to put something new up … It’s about protecting your culture,” Benjamin said.
After a deliberation by the Landmarks Commission, the commissioners announced that they had come to a conclusion.
Commissioner Cristy Lane called the Heritage Society’s application “incredibly well written” and said that it was “delightful to read about women’s history.”
“It’s amazing nothing has changed [on the campus],” Commissioner Todd Sargeant added.