Holly House: Longtime Hearth and Heart of Our Sacred Ground

Rev. Furrer’s second chapter on our ESUC history, focuses on the acquisition of our current property and, in particular, on the old farmhouse at its heart: Holly House.

Holly House

In order to understand Holly House, and the emotional significance it holds for most East Shore members, we have to go way back—back to the beginning. And that would be back to the time before Europeans from the Hudson’s Bay Company first arrived in this area in 1832. The native people were known as the Sammamish, closely related to the Duwamish tribe, and have often been considered a Duwamish sub-group as part of the Xacuabš (“People of the Large Lake”) who lived near Lake Washington. Numbering about 200, the Sammamish had several permanent and seasonal settlements roughly coinciding with the area making up present day Issaquah, Redmond, and Bellevue.

As pioneer families immigrated to Washington, the ancient villages of the Sammamish evolved into homesteads, farms, mining settlements, and logging camps. Next came small, subsistence farms, every one of them hewn from forest. The removal of stumps left from forested old growth trees required farmers to clear up the debris, remove the stumps, and plow up roots before fields were suitable for cultivation. Since many early farmers in this area leased for five years, by the time the land was properly cleared they had to move on and start anew. In time, the land was cleared and modest homesteads were established. Among them, despite facing considerable racism, were several enterprising Japanese and Pilipino family properties. Strawberries and fruit trees were the favored crops.

Over the decades, land was cleared and cultivated out from Bellevue Square and later down along Factoria. As the Seattle suburbs began to bloom following the First World War, Lake Washington’s depth made access to the Eastside difficult; this area remained pastoral and rural. It wasn’t until 100 years ago that the area around the church was productively cleared. Holly House was built—quite solidly and quite clearly for family use—in 1921. Strawberries and fruit were raised on the modest parcel throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s. Some of the fruit trees still remain. By the early ‘40s, innovative engineers conceived of a concrete pontoon bridge connected to underwater pilings with cables. With the ending of the Second World War and the G.I. Bill—offering low cost loans to veterans (to white veterans) what had been farmland became housing developments. Mercer Island and the rest of the Eastside began to grow—continuing unabated to the present day.

By January 1950 East Shore Unitarian Church was officially organized and chartered. They rented space at a funeral home on Bellevue Square, hired a Minister—Chad Spring, after whom Spring Hall is named—and began raising money and looking for place to build. The site selected was a seven-acre parcel “way out in Factoria with almost nothing around it” owned by ESUC members Lester and Christie Henderson. In little over a year they built this building. When the Hendersons moved two years later, they offered three adjoining acres, which included their nine-room residence. We purchased the 1921 farmhouse and the ¾ acres around it. As a gift, distinct from the purchase of the house, the Henderson’s deeded a glen to the north of the church: today’s lower parking lot. Almost immediately the children named the farmhouse Holly House, because of the large holly trees around it. This was in the summer of 1956. So it was over sixty-two years ago that Holly House became part of our community.

It’s been close to the heart of our collective life ever since. And it has served the congregation in a variety of ways, both practical and visionary. Initially, according to Dorothy Hopper, wife of one of our longest serving and most revered ministers, Leon Hopper, it housed the custodian. Meanwhile, Sunday school was crammed into the North and South Rooms—but that didn’t work very well since they were, as children always are, kind of noisy. So Holly House’s downstairs was painted and reconfigured to serve as a Sunday school for a while. Board member Mark Norelius recalls attending RE classes in Holly House as a youngster. Whereas lively children seemed too noisy and underfoot when they were in this building, for most parents—and many others—Holly House seemed too far from the sanctuary for the Sunday school to feel like it was part of the community as a whole. Plans were made for a building large enough and close enough to fit the church’s needs. By 1960 one was built.

A series of people connected to the church then lived in Holly House. The caretaker, as noted earlier, and more than one Intern Minister were tenant-residents. At one point in the late ‘70s the church sponsored a family of Southeast Asian refugees and for a while they lived in Holly House. Then the Reverend Barbara Wells was called to oversee the church school. She, too, lived in Holly House—for a short while.

But things began to change in 1984 when the congregation—by now one of the biggest in the Pacific Northwest—voted to participate in the Sanctuary Movement. I asked Ruth Edwards, our wonderful, hard-working Church Archivist, how the disposition of Holly House had become such a packed issue for so many of ESUC’s members. Because, she said clearly and evenly, “it’s a symbol of our Social Action.” Studying the matter I’ve come to agree with Ruth completely.

In the 1980s, the United States became involved in a series of wars and CIA incursions in Central America. This was the situation described in this morning’s READING and leading to ESUC’s decision to become a Sanctuary Church. Both families who stayed in Holly House during that period lived in considerable fear that their relatives back in Guatemala would suffer if their names were ever revealed—which is what happened to the first family, forcing them to literally flee in the dark of night. The second family was less secretive, but the father, apparently, had mental health issues—leading to a serious complexification of the whole situation. Eventually, as outlined in the READING, the political situation eased and the family was able to safely move on.

The next Holly House initiative occurred in the early 2000s. University Unitarian Church was already involved in organizing housing for the homeless and, essentially, ESUC tagged along and joined in for several years. The outreach was genuine and much needed, but not without complications of its own. One recurring issue was an unfriendly dog owned by one of the residents that constantly wandered onto and caused problems across our campus. Eventually the Holly House Home for the Homeless ended, too.

A remodeling effort then turned the building into what it is today: housing for women in transition, typically out of abusive relationships and into more stable, wholesome lives. This was nine or ten years ago, and Sophia’s Way (the renters) has been a model tenant the whole time. As the church began to contemplate selling Holly House we approached Sophia’s Way with an offer to sell to them at a below market rate—but they declined. And so we began the process we’re still involved in: figuring out what to do with Holly House. In June the congregation voted by over 90% to sell it. What has not been decided is to whom.

Market Rate or Affordable Housing?

Ruth Edward’s observation that Holly House is a symbol of ESUC’s commitment to social justice is clearly true FOR SOME OF US.

But how we dispose of that property will by no mean nullify that. Maintaining our congregational commitment to social action will—and must—continue no matter what we do with Holly House. And there are a lot of options. Even selling it to a commercial developer doesn’t preclude investing the proceeds in ways that continue to fulfill our congregational mission to promote justice. What’s most important as we collectively discuss what we want to do, from my point of view, is to keep in mind the rest of our mission—particularly practicing love and building community.

Holly House’s legacy is a noble one; and a radical one that the church can and should be proud of. Good! But it’s also good to find a way forward built on compromise. One that focuses our outreach and justice making with eyes toward the multicultural future Bellevue is in the midst of and that the church has pledged itself to embrace. Affordable housing is one way we might accomplish that. But not the only way. It would be a mistake, again from my point of view, to let our church’s activist legacy wither and atrophy. But that’s not going to happen. I sure don’t want that to happen. Do you? But I also don’t want differences about the specific disposition of Holly House to bifurcate the community and split us in two. Do any of you want that? I m sure you do not, any more than I do. Or any more than Barbara Wells, or Leon Hopper, or Lester and Christie Henderson would want us to.

Four members of the Holly House Task Force and I went up to Shoreline last Thursday to visit a 60-unit affordable housing complex that came into being in ways not unlike what could happen here. I was more impressed than I thought I’d be; if that is what the church decides to do, I think it’ll be fine. If we go for the more commercial option, that’ll be fine, too. Especially if we use some of the proceeds to prime the pump of more skillfully imaginative social action in the near future, including (perhaps) a more viable affordable housing complex built on the lower parking lot.

The cool thing, the really great thing, is that you are a community committed to making a creative progressive difference in Bellevue and in the lives of the church’s members and future members. We must not confuse the symbol with that which it symbolizes. Holly House is a symbol, yes, but it’s a symbol of progressive outreach. And that’s what matters.

So may it be. Now and into the future. Amen.