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Originally published May 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 14, 2009 at 8:37 AM

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Nuns putting Woodway mansion up for sale

Some city halls are in modern office towers, some in historic art deco buildings, some in whitewashed clapboard frames. The town of Woodway...

Times Snohomish County Reporter

Town of Woodway

Incorporated: 1958

Population: 1,180

Homes: 470

Median income: $144,194

Motto: The Quiet Place

Interesting fact: The Philip Johnson estate served as the backdrop for the 1974 TV movie, "Reflections of Murder" starring Sam Waterston and Tuesday Weld. A swimming pool (which has since been filled in) was added to the 14-acre grounds for the movie.

U.S. Census and town of Woodway

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Some city halls are in modern office towers, some in historic art deco buildings, some in whitewashed clapboard frames. The town of Woodway, population 1,180, is hoping to take up residence in a Tudor mansion with a sweeping view of Puget Sound.

The Woodway Town Council on Monday is expected to approve placing a bond measure on the August primary ballot to purchase the mansion for $5.9 million from its owners, an order of Dominican nuns based in Adrian, Mich.

Originally built in 1930 for then-Boeing President Philip Johnson, the mansion on Woodway Park Road has been home to Dominican sisters since 1956 when they bought it from Johnson's widow.

Over the past five decades, it has served as a convent and motherhouse, a place where young sisters were trained, and in recent years, the Rosary Heights retreat and reflection center.

The nuns say their dwindling numbers and the high cost of the mansion's upkeep necessitate the sale.

When their numbers fell below 60 in 2003, the local Edmonds Dominican Sisters merged with the larger Michigan group. Just a handful of nuns still live in the mansion.

The nuns here did not want to sell the property, said Sister Judy Byron, who lives at Rosary Heights, but they recognized that the expense had become a burden. She said the nuns approached Woodway with the hope that the house would remain open to the public rather than fall into private hands.

Woodway, which takes pride in its quiet, wooded character, also feared that once sold, the 14-acre, high bluff waterfront property would be subdivided and developed, or the historic mansion razed to make way for a new home.

On Tuesday, the town reached an agreement with the order to purchase the property contingent on the town's approval of the bond measure.

"We're excited about the opportunity to preserve this beautiful estate and keep it as a community gathering place," said Kerri Bumgardner, a Woodway resident who is organizing community support for the purchase.

She said that while the goal is to preserve the mansion and grounds, how the town will use the property is still being formulated. Ideas include a public park, a place for wedding receptions, a site for meetings and retreats, as well as a new home for city offices.

Woodway's current town hall is in a 2,000-square-foot, 1950s building that isn't wheelchair accessible and isn't insulated, said city administrator Eric Faison. The town has five full-time and three part-time employees and a dozen part-time police. Still, they are cramped for space, he said. Both public works and the police are in small rooms next to a basement garage.

But Faison said the town might have made do if the nuns hadn't decided to sell their estate.

Since February, the town has held a series of public meetings to discuss the possible purchase. The response was overwhelmingly favorable, said Town Council member Bill Anderson. But he noted that the town relies almost exclusively on residential property tax to pay for services.

And Woodway twice has voted down joining the Sno-Isle Library System, which serves most of Snohomish County, because it would mean higher taxes.

"It's one thing to verbally support the purchase in a meeting and another to go into the voting booth and do it," Anderson said.

Ron Clyborne, a Windermere real-estate agent and former Woodway resident, called the estate, an "incredibly rare and magnificent piece of property."

The half-timbered brick mansion was modeled on an English medieval manor house and retains most of its original features including beautifully carved-wood paneled rooms, ornate plaster ceilings and grand fireplaces.

The Snohomish County assessor values the 14-acre estate at about $8.7 million.

Still, Clyborne said the mansion's heating, wiring and plumbing systems need updating and there are a limited number of buyers for a Tudor fixer.

The only comparable property in the neighborhood, the mansion of Woodway's wealthy founder, David Whitcomb Sr., sold for $6.6 million five years ago.

The estate also lost some of its property, including its tennis court, to a landslide in 1997, when part of the bluff slid down the hillside and knocked five railroad cars into Puget Sound.

Nationally, the number of women in religious orders peaked in 1965 at about 180,000 and has fallen to about 70,000 today. The average age of nuns today is about 75, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

In recent years, many religious orders around the country have been forced to sell off property to support the health-care costs of older sisters.

The nuns said the decision to sell the Woodway estate wasn't made in desperation, but rather out of a sense that the order could no longer afford the mansion's upkeep.

"To care for that property to the level we wanted to maintain it at had become a financial drain," said Mary Karen McClellan, communication director for the sisters.

Sister Byron was 18 when she entered the Edmonds Dominican community in 1960. She returned again in 1995 and has lived in the house ever since.

Now 67, she said daily life in such a beautiful setting was "an incredible blessing." She said the income generated from renting out rooms for meetings and retreats wasn't enough to cover all the mansion's costs.

Both religious and civic conference centers are struggling to attract business in a poor economy.

Rosary Heights will end its programs July 1. Those in the spiritual community are already mourning its loss.

"We have witnessed healing in people's lives there," said Dianna Kunce, a Presbyterian minister who runs Renewal Ministries in Mukilteo and has offered classes and prayer retreats in partnership with the Dominican sisters.

She said there was a tremendous sense of sadness and grief about the closing of Rosary Heights.

"There is something very special about a place where people intentionally separate themselves from the world to have an encounter with God," she said. "There is such a profound need for places like this in the community."

Town Councilman Anderson holds out hope that the mansion and grounds, even under city ownership, could still be a place for peaceful reflection. He noted that the current town hall doesn't see a lot of activity on a daily basis.

"It's not a hustle, bustle place," he said.

Sister Byron struck a religious note when contemplating the loss of the nuns' home. She said that in the Christian view, this life and our possessions aren't permanent.

Quoting from Scripture, she said, "We have no lasting city." The passage from Hebrews continues, "but we seek one to come."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times researchers

David Turim and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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