- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) - Long intrigued by an overgrown estate tucked behind Olympic College, Professor Susan Digby decided one day to poke around there following graduation four years ago.

Little did she know the land was owned by the campus and, “I was in fact allowed on the property,” she said.

What she found was an “astonishing, eclectic” mix of native plants and trees overlooking the Port Washington Narrows and introduced species from around the world. Almost instantly, she saw an outdoor classroom in the making, reported the Kitsap Sun (http://bit.ly/290GLPj).

“It struck me as though it was a secret garden, full of potential,” she said.

Digby, who teaches geography, and others on the OC faculty have begun to incorporate the Barner Learning Landscape, as it is now known, into their syllabuses.

But the property’s history doesn’t end in the yard. What Digby stumbled upon likely is the only waterfront property in the possession of a local college around Puget Sound. It also houses an aging but historic home of a longtime Bremerton family that features a design by Elizabeth Ayer, the first woman to graduate from the University of Washington’s school of architecture.

The home is the former estate of Dr. Henry and Elizabeth “Billie” Barner, who came to Bremerton in 1926. Billy Barner lived there until her death in 2003 at 100. The Bremer Trust purchased the property in 2008 and gave the 2.5-acre parcel to OC.

A walk down a single-lane, foliage-lined driveway off Chester Avenue reveals the home, which resembles a Southern plantation. The residence is boarded up and likely would require hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations. For now, the focus remains on what’s outside - the exotic plant life the Barners imported. That includes everything from a Cornelian cherry tree, a Camperdown elm from Scotland and even a Maiden’s blush camellia that blooms brilliantly each year.

OC President Dr. David Mitchell said he sees the property as part of the college’s future and continuing to “institutionalize it as part of the curriculum.”

While Digby is retiring this year, Amy Lawrence, an environmental sciences professor, will take over the leading faculty role at the house this year.

“It’s an incredible opportunity the college has out there,” Mitchell said.

College officials see benefits for students there in disciplines ranging from engineering to anthropology to creative writing.

Digby added a layer of “service learning,” in which students help to maintain the landscape, spending time ripping out invasive English ivy, for instance. She believes it teaches them an appreciation of community.

“They learn firsthand what it takes to restore a property,” she said. “But most of all they learn what can be done when a group gets together.”

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Information from: Kitsap Sun, http://www.kitsapsun.com/

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