With sweeping views of Puget Sound and nearly 50 rooms, the Weyerhaeuser mansion is one of Tacoma's most historic and majestic homes.
It was built as the residence of timber baron John P. Weyerhaeuser, later became a Catholic convent and college, and for the last 35 years has hosted a Baptist seminary.
Its next chapter in history is uncertain.
The mansion and the rest of its 7-acre compound of buildings will soon be put up for sale by a Christian school that wants to move its graduate theology classes to King County.
Featuring panoramic views, rich oak interior with secret passageways and an English Tudor red brick exterior, the estate peering out at Commencement Bay has provided a monastic-like setting for Northwest Baptist Seminary since 1975.
The 55-student seminary, suffering from declining enrollment and revenues, merged with Salem, Ore.-based Corban University in July. Corban then announced plans to sell the campus in Tacoma’s North End. It wants to move and expand the seminary, now part of Corban’s School of Ministry, to a more central Puget Sound location, perhaps south Seattle.
The mansion – with three stories and a basement – is assessed at more than $3 million, according to Pierce County records. The property includes a carriage house, chapel and classroom building, where the students earning graduate degrees in theology now study.
Weyerhaeuser had the brick house, also called Haddaway Hall, built in 1923 as his residence. The property had been the site of an earlier mansion that was home to Whitworth College before the school moved to Spokane.
The ownership of the Weyerhaeuser mansion changed hands over time. It became the convent for the Sisters of St. Dominic, who added a chapel, classrooms and housing for their college. In a stroke of good fortune, Northwest Baptist Seminary purchased the home in 1974 for $250,000 from the nuns, said Leroy Goertzen, Tacoma campus administrator. That’s about what Weyerhaeuser paid to have it built.
The mansion is on the city’s register of historic places, as well as the national register.
“The property itself is unbelievably prominent,” said Reuben McKnight, the city’s historic preservation officer. “It’s incredibly high quality. It’s a real gem.”
Even in a still ailing economy, there is a market for mansions. But high-end homes aren’t commanding the prices they were before the recession, and they may take longer than a year to sell, a Tacoma real estate agent said.
“Big stuff still does sell,” said Al Morken, who analyzes the local market for Keller Williams. “For the right property, there is still a market.”
The school’s ability to move is linked to the sale of the mansion and its compound at 4301 N. Stevens St.
“You’re not selling a house,” Goertzen said. “You’re selling a historic site. No one thinks this is going to be easy.”
But the sale is critical to Corban University’s plans, which include eliminating some of the five master’s programs now held in Tacoma, moving the others and adding new offerings in rented space in a yet-to-be determined business park.
“The goal is to move to the I-5 corridor in south Seattle to have more access to Seattle,” said Reno Hoff, president of Corban, which has 1,100 students at its main campus in Salem.
Money from the mansion sale, which could take up to two years, would go to Corban, Hoff said.
By moving, the Tacoma program – which also offers a doctor of ministry – would have the chance to grow and escape the risk of closing, Goertzen said.
The mansion has “a real peaceful ambience,” he said, but it’s not highly visible to the public and has poor access and parking. With little money to market itself, the independent Baptist seminary’s enrollment has dropped nearly in half, from the 100 students it taught in 2000-01. Two professors were laid off in the past year, reducing the faculty to five, only two of whom teach full time.
“It can’t go on and I think everybody senses that,” Goertzen said. Even with the asset of the mansion, he said, “I think the risk of closing was really there.”
The school’s five faculty and 11 staff members use the mansion for their offices. Students meet in the mansion for fellowship gatherings and a theology discussion group called “the Dead Preachers’ Society,” a takeoff on the 1989 movie “Dead Poets Society.”
Taking a break from her class on sin and salvation in the nearby classroom building last week, Sabrina Reyes said she has mixed feelings about her school moving.
“I love the historicity and the architecture and the overview of the water,” said Reyes, 27, who lives in Tacoma.
Eric Malone, 24, said the move would be good for him and the Tacoma program. He drives from Bothell, a 50-minute commute in good traffic.
“I’m a little partial because of where I live,” Malone said. “They could reach a lot more people.”
He said most of the seminary’s students live south of Federal Way, but some commute from the Kirkland area and Renton.
The mansion contains 16,709 square feet – including seven bathrooms – and was completed in 1923. A carriage house was built then as well. With the added chapel and education building, the total square footage is 46,577. That doesn’t include the greenhouse in disrepair.
But the mansion – built alongside a hill above Ruston Way overlooking the water – is the crown jewel.
Because the mansion is on the city’s historic register, any changes to the exterior must be approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to make sure they are “architecturally compatible,” McKnight said.
The mansion has unusual features, such as the pipe organ on the first floor. The pipes are in the basement but their sounds are transmitted through the mansion via sound chambers in the wall.
There’s also a dumb-waiter elevator. And the numerous hidden wood panels that still swing open enabled Weyerhaeuser to move from room to room.
The rooms vary in size from the large bedrooms for Weyerhaeuser and his wife, Anna, to smaller rooms on the house’s other side that were once servants’ quarters.
From his second floor office, Goertzen can look beyond a steep drop-off across the water in two directions. The lighthouse on Browns Point is visible across Commencement Bay, and on a clear day, an eagle eye can spot the flight tower at Sea-Tac Airport.
Goertzen said the merger and move provide a “new birth” for the seminary, even with a sense of loss about moving out of a mansion.
“Who wouldn’t want this office?” he said, gesturing toward his outlook of the water.
“But in the end, it’s about our mission to train Christian leaders for Christ,” Goertzen said. “That’s what we’re about.”
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