Post Hospital at the Vancouver Barracks

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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At one point, the Post Hospital at the Vancouver Barracks was the among the busiest Army hospitals in the country — thanks in no small part to the Spanish Influenza — with some 21,000 patients in 1918.

Today, the 105-year-old building sees little more than a few maintenance workers — and looks like it’s ready for its close-up as the set of a horror movie.

It has stood empty since the mid-1990s, last used as office space by the Army.

Plaster has fallen off ceilings and lies on the floor in dusty piles. The floor tiles have asbestos. The peeling paint contains lead. Rumors of ghosts abound.

It’s clear a lot of TLC is in order — to the tune of at least a few million dollars — to bring the building up to seismic, safety and disability standards.

For at least a decade, ideas have been floated about just what should be done with the 30,000-square-foot space.

The McMenamins name was thrown around about five years ago. But the company, famous for renovating historic spaces into quirky restaurant and hotel spaces, has since said the hospital’s long, narrow shape, coupled with its proximity to Interstate 5 make it less than ideal, said Elson Strahan, president of the Fort Vancouver National Trust, the nonprofit that manages the West Barracks and Officer’s Row on behalf of the city.

The hospital and the I-5 have a storied history together: The annex wing of the hospital was actually set at a “T” with the main wing, Strahan said. That is, until the interstate was built in the , and engineers had the wing moved and attached to the west end of the building, he explained.

The bustling traffic is about to get much closer, too. The proposed new I-5 bridge would widen the interstate nearly to the hospital’s back doors. A freeway connector lid, with a park and noise barrier elements, would be built over the expanded roadway, making a pedestrian friendly connection between downtown Vancouver and the Vancouver Barracks. That work is federally-requried mitigation for the loss of protected land.

There’s a vision for what the Post Hospital can be — it’s just the matter of finding the money to do it, Strahan said.

The trust hopes to partner with Vancouver nonprofit Southwest Washington Center for the Arts to renovate the space to create an arts and education center, he said.

Patient and surgery rooms will be perfect for artists’ studios, and the massive windows on both the north and south sides of the building will provide excellent light. Gallery rooms will be performance and education space.

Once the repairs and other required fixes are made “we really can use the space much as it is,” Strahan said. “We’re just targeting getting it up to where it is functionally habitable for those purposes.”

Finding the money to fix it up, he acknowledged, “is our challenge.”

Plans to get the arts center under way have been in the works for a few years now, but the timing of the Columbia River Crossing project has put the hospital on hold.

“We moved it to back burner, because needed to assess the impact,” Strahan said. “Plans are still gelling. It’s a little bit premature to launch a capital campaign.”