Looking at the charred spots left on the walls and the ceilings, National Park Service Archaeologist Bob Cromwell tilted his head up and said, “We’re lucky this building is still here.”
The massive artillery barracks, built in 1904 to house two full artillery companies on the Fort Vancouver National Site caught fire sometime in the 1930s, the historian said.
Luckily there were still men living there at the time who were able to put the wooden structure out before it was consumed.
Today, there’s a brand new fire sprinkler system in, and even a new roof, but it’s also been empty since 1999, when the Army deeded the building over to the city of Vancouver for ownership.
Folks are also still looking for a good way to capitalize on their luck that the 40,016 square foot structure is still around, and bring a new life into the abandoned spot.
“The challenge of this building is it is a lot of space,” Cromwell said.
Five years ago, a nonprofit artist’s collective — the ARTillery Barracks — was pitched for the space. Now, those at the Fort Vancouver National Trust, which manages the West Barracks and Officers Row, think the nearby Post Hospital fits that bill.
Trust President and CEO Elson Strahan said they’ve got a mind to turn the place where thousands of men used to bunk into a place where visitors and locals alike may want to stay the night.
“There’s spaces for food service, meeting space and rooms,” Strahan said.
Since it was intended to house two companies of artillery troops, the building is a mirror image of itself on each side, with the main and top floors mostly huge open rooms where the men would have done everything together, Cromwell said.
The basement features two secure artillery bunkers, showers, and the remainders of toilet seats that were a little close together for modern comfort.
“The old saying was ‘You could hold hands and pray while you’re sitting there,’” Cromwell joked. “They were meant to do everything together.”
The trust and the city would need to retrofit the building with tenant improvements, heating and cooling and make it wheelchair accessible before a developer would come in, Strahan said.
A considerable of lead remains in the attic, which was used as an indoor firing range.
“Because of those decades of shooting, there’s lead bullets and lead particles up there,” said Cromwell, who said it was the only part of the shuttered structure he would not allow anyone to enter.
Soldiers’ graffiti from World Wars I and II can still be seen on pipes and walls on that floor as well.
Cromwell said that because the building is protected under national historical landmark guidelines, getting permission to put in walls to create individual hotel rooms could pose a challenge.
Still, Strahan said that he’s confident that the Artillery Barracks will be restored for a hotel use once the country’s financial situation improves.
Cromwell said he’s hopeful as well: “You can just see the potential for this to be great.”