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Washington Voices

Determination preserves home as development surrounds it

Thu., June 30, 2011

When owners of Mary’s Place refused to sell, Sacred Heart Medical Center was built around the house. (Colin Mulvany)
When owners of Mary’s Place refused to sell, Sacred Heart Medical Center was built around the house. (Colin Mulvany)

Nestled among the complex of buildings that make up the Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center is an elegant house dating back to the early days of Spokane’s history. The white, four-story dwelling with the large front porch is known as Mary’s Place.

So many questions are asked at Sacred Heart about Mary’s Place that a plaque has been placed along a corridor of windows inside the hospital explaining that Mary’s Place is privately owned and not part of the medical center. Even so, said Dorothy Alex, who resides at Mary’s Place, people often think she is a nun and address her as sister.

The house has made headlines various times as the medical center sought to purchase the property for its several expansion projects, beginning in the early 1960s. Owner Mary Gianetsas refused all offers. Sacred Heart grew, to be sure, but it had to accommodate Mary’s Place with each building project – and hence, Mary’s Place is now surrounded by Sacred Heart.

Dorothy Alex now owns the house along with her siblings George Alex, of Spokane, Constantine (Gus) Alex, of Los Angeles, and Xenia Gianetsas, of Seattle – the children of Mary Gianetsas, who died in 1991.

Dorothy Alex remembers the regular, sometimes weekly, visits her mother received from Sister Peter Claver, Sacred Heart administrator from 1964 to 1988. Didn’t Mary think God would want her to sell the house to Sacred Heart? Sister Peter Claver would ask. “Mother would say that no, God hadn’t spoken to her yet about that,” Dorothy Alex said.

Even so, George Alex said, there’s a good relationship with Sacred Heart, which he terms an excellent neighbor. They keep the hospital apprised of things that are going on in their line of sight, and Sacred Heart’s administration keeps them updated on hospital plans and activities. Eventually, he said, he expects that Sacred Heart will come to own the property, but the family isn’t interested in that happening any time soon.

“We’ll let our heirs deal with that,” he added.

The 25-room house – built in 1906 and formerly owned by the Jordan and then the McAtee families – retains many of its original decorations, including satin wallpaper and, in the kitchen, a pewter sink. It is furnished with vintage pieces and retains its old-world charm. A ballroom remains in the basement. There’s a stained glass window on the landing of the staircase to the second floor. There are six bedrooms on the second floor and another six on the third floor.

Plus there’s a wonderful sunroom on the west side, where Mary Gianetsas would sit overlooking the parking lot the family put in where a lawn used to be to bring in some additional income, charging 25 cents per hour back in 1947.

“Mother would tap on the window if someone would park and not pay,” Dorothy Alex said.

George Alex said that as special as the house is to them, the truly amazing story is that of their mother, who grew up poor in Greece. According to her children, she lived with a distant relative as a girl, worked in a hat factory and then cooked and cleaned in the evening. There were relatives in Yakima who had a photo of young Mary, which caught the eye of railroad worker Christopher Alex. A correspondence began, and he paid to bring her to America in 1924, meeting her at Ellis Island in New York City, where they married in a civil ceremony on the day of her arrival – the only way she would be allowed into the country.

“However, she would have nothing to do with him until they got to Yakima and had a proper Greek Orthodox wedding,” Dorothy Alex said.

Christopher died 10 years later. With the insurance money Mary received after her husband’s death, she took their three children to Spokane, where she got a small house in which she rented out rooms. She then married railroader Peter Gianetsas and had another daughter. He worked out of Cle Elem and was only home on weekends, but they worked to acquire additional real estate and rentals, including an apartment building near Seventh Avenue and Washington Street, where the entire family lived in a one-bedroom unit.

In 1944 they bought the house at 104 E. Eighth Ave. that would become known in time as Mary’s Place. They paid $20,000. They took in roomers, including schoolteachers, nurses and a doctor. And Mary Gianetsas would bring over nieces and nephews from Greece and put them through school, making a place for them at the house, too.

When Peter Gianetsas retired from the railroad, he took over supervision of the parking lot, and when he died in 1971, Mary took that on as well from her vantage point in the sunroom. She held spectacular parties at the house and remained an astute businesswoman, even refusing a $200,000 offer for the house in the 1960s when Sacred Heart first planned to build its new patient tower, necessitating that the tower be constructed in a north-south direction rather than the desired east-west orientation.

“Everyone knew how much she loved the house, which she did,” George Alex said. “But she was also a pretty shrewd businesswoman. She knew it would always have value.”

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