Red Cross building a shining success

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To the Fort Vancouver National Trust, the Red Cross Building is a shining beacon of what a vision — and a few million dollars — can achieve.

Built in 1918 and 1919, it opened its doors as a convalescent ward for the thousands of returning World War I soldiers. Some suffered from physical wounds. Others were dealing with the mental trauma that can come from combat.

Whatever ailments they had, volunteer hostesses called “Gray Ladies,” kept the men entertained with snacks, dances, games and song. Large windows were meant to provide plenty of restorative sunlight.

But years later, like many of the large buildings in the city-owned West Barracks portion of the Fort Vancouver National Site, the Red Cross building was in need of some restoration itself.

In 2004, nearly $2 million in federal, state and city money was combined to rehab the structure for modern use.

Today, it plays home to the west Vancouver branch of the International Air & Hospitality Academy, which uses the bottom and top floor as classroom space. The nearby former Army Mess Hall has been retrofitted as a fully functioning commercial kitchen.

The high ceilings and bright, open space — combined with built-in culinary and hospitality staff — have quickly made the building a popular choice for wedding receptions, banquets and other community gatherings, National Park Service Archaeologist Bob Cromwell said.

And that’s why they look to the Red Cross renovation as a blueprint for how other buildings, like the Post Hospital and East Barracks, could be rehabbed, he said.

“It’s probably the best example of adaptive reuse,” Cromwell said. “To put a current use that matches the historical use always works really well.”

Some 55 to 60 students take classes in the building at any given time, said John Mosher, a hospitality management instructor with the International Air & Hospitality Academy.

Working out of a nearly 100-year-old building has its setbacks — classroom space is a bit limited, and the heating and cooling can sometimes be a bit off. Still the five years the school has occupied the site have been wonderful, he said.

“Because of the aesthetic and beautiful surroundings, we love it,” Mosher said. “There’s so much great space in this reserve.”