Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Providence Point: From Chicken Farms to Retirement Community

by Joan Newman
The story of Providence Point, the spacious retirement community off S. E. 43rd Way above Lake Sammamish, begins over 50 years ago when it was “unimproved stump land,” according to Brad Best, a Providence Point resident who founded Brad Best Realty in Redmond in 1955.

Best provided some of the site’s history recently, as did E. J. “Bud” Dale, a member of the Providence Point Planning Committee, who has located and preserved a notebook and other materials outlining the development history as compiled by early residents.
In the 1950s, said Best, developed land on the Sammamish Plateau was chiefly in chicken and mink farms, operated by local families such as the Erickson brothers Edward, Theo and Tuano, and Bill and Faye Sween. But Plateau property was selling so fast, he said, that although he created a color-coded chart to show how many times each property sold, he couldn’t keep up with it.

Owners of the property which eventually became Providence Point were retired chicken farmers Earl Miller and his wife Dorothy, and Walter and Monica Gwin. Best’s files show that Charles J. Johnston owned adjacent land and later granted a right-of-way into the property.

In the mid-1950s the Sisters of Providence were looking for a site for a new college for the training of teaching nuns. Best picked up the Sisters in West Seattle and walked the Miller and Gwin properties with them. “I’m a Presbyterian,” he warned them. “Well, we hope to convert you!” they answered.

Because there were no roads into the site, he took the Sisters up Duthie Hill Road and they tramped in on an old logging railroad grade which ran west through the property downhill to Monohon, a lumber mill town on Lake Sammamish until 1925. (The Monohon mill burned down that year, but was eventually re-built and operated into the 1940s.)

The Sisters bought 240 acres in 1957 and built Providence Heights College of Sister Formation, one of six major academic units at Seattle University. The College opened in 1962, combining a college education with professional studies which prepared  graduates for teaching, nursing and other specialties. Mother Mary Philothea was Dean.
By 1969, however, enrollment had dropped and the Sisters closed the College. They stayed on to run an educational conference center, used by Boeing, the State Patrol and many school organizations for training and professional meetings until 1976. The property was then sold to the Lutheran Bible Institute (LBI) in 1978, the Sisters expressing pleasure that educational as well a religious activities would continue there.
Other potential purchasers had been Pacific Northwest Bell, which wanted to use the buildings for an employee training center, and the State of Washington, which wanted to train state and local police at the facility. The legislature approved that purchase but it was not funded, according to the Providence Point History Notebook.

LBI, later re-named Trinity Lutheran College, sold 180 of the original acres to Swanson-Dean Corporation in 1979 to develop a retirement community, with a provision for continuing education as well as other amenities. A Community Advisory Committee was established to help with a Development Plan for Providence Point. Its members are listed in the History Notebook as Bob Small, then Dean of Architecture at the University of Washington; Bob Johnson, the retired sales manager of Panorama City, in Lacey WA; and Marty Wilson, a “TV Personality and Seniors Advocate.”

King County approved the Swanson-Dean project, stipulating among other things that Providence Point must purchase an extension ladder for an Issaquah fire truck because three-story buildings were planned, and must provide an “internal transportation system” to minimize the increased traffic to be produced.

Ground was broken for Providence Point in 1983 with Lt. Governor John Cherberg attending. The central “Town Hall,” with property management and real estate offices and a large meeting hall, (and later Stromboli’s Restaurant and now Bake’s Place jazz restaurant) was dedicated in May, 1984. Balloons were released and the Seattle All-City Band marched past. The first ten condominiums were occupied by August, by new homeowners from Seattle, Bellingham, the San Juan Islands, Bellevue, Redmond, Issaquah and Enumclaw.

The first residents were Pastor Erman Lunder, a professor emeritus from LBI and his wife Stella.Their previous home had been on a busy street.”The first night [at Providence Point] was so quiet you could hear yourself think,” they said.

The fifth residents, Archie and Mildred Gunderson, also wrote a short memoir for the History Notebook, noting that the nearest grocery story was “in Issaquah on Front St.….QFC [at Pine Lake]was to be opened soon and new Safeways were something for the future.” Mildred was especially pleased that “one winter morning when there was a little snow on the ground, we looked out our dining room window to see deer tracks and two spots where two animals had bedded down…probably on their way to the lake from the woods.”

Today there are 1300 residents in 1008 condominiums in seven “villages.” The first organization formed was “Communiversity,” which is still an immensely popular, resident-run program providing courses and seminars over a broad range of topics and skills, supported by homeowners’ dues and small attendance fees for others.

The original campus acres are now owned by The City Church. The Sammamish YMCA conducts its programs in the Sisters’ former gym and pool.

Joan Newman is one of several Providence Point residents who volunteer for the Issaquah History Museums.

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