Barracks renovation is chance to see old construction

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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photoCarpenter Emil Hameed, right, works Friday on remodeling the front porch of the Artillery Barracks at the Fort Vancouver National Site.

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When Kevin Kowitz learned his construction company would do the Artillery Barracks renovation in Vancouver, Kowitz decided to get out of the front office and head for a job site again.

“I’ve been in management, and I wanted to do a historic building,” said Kowitz, the job superintendent for Payne Construction in Portland. “It’s not every day you get to work on a 107-year-old building.”

The iconic building on the grounds of the Vancouver Barracks is in the middle of a million-dollar makeover that has temporarily removed some of its most iconic features.

A 200-foot-long front porch is being rebuilt and 17 white columns that support the porch roof lie in a couple of neat rows inside the building, waiting for restoration.

With demolition pretty much completed, work crews are starting to put things back together. And they now have a better idea of what they’re working with, said Michael True, chief financial officer and chief operations officer of the nonprofit group Fort Vancouver National Trust.

“It’s so different than how buildings are constructed today,” True said. “It’s been fun dismantling it, seeing how it was constructed.”

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it’s a learning curve for all of us,” Kowitz said.

The original builders used bigger timbers and pieces of lumber — and they used lots of it.

“It those days, trees were plentiful,” Kowitz said.

“They overbuilt a lot of this building, which is one reason it’s still so solid,” True said.

There is some serious reinforcing to be done in a few places, however. Each white porch column was built with a 4-inch-by-4-inch space running through the center, so it could be reinforced with a support post, but the columns are hollow.

Each column — almost 10 feet long — was fastened to the porch roof with just a few nails, and they weren’t big nails.

While crews will do a complete makeover of the front porch with its six front doors, the interior remodel will focus on the east half of the building just off Fort Vancouver Way, the main north-south route through the site.

“The Army built its artillery barracks in an ‘L’ shape,” True said. “This is a double barracks, joined at the top of each ‘L.’”

The remodel will produce about 6,500 square feet of space for community use. The ongoing work also will give planners a head start when they get a chance to renovate the other half of the building.

Workers will try to reuse as much lumber as possible, although it might wind up in different places. Wood that wasn’t pressure-treated won’t be reused for exterior construction.

Interior work includes framing for new rooms and work areas, but those new spaces aren’t built to be permanent. Since they aren’t part of the original design, those walls can be removed in the future so the interior can be restored to its historic layout.

The renovated space will include a meeting room and a smaller “boardroom” meeting area. There also will be a banquet room, with a kitchen in what had been the original barracks kitchen. There, they found another interesting design wrinkle, True said.

The old kitchen had a concrete floor, which people assumed had been poured over a wooden subfloor to provide a fireproof surface.

When workers got into it, they found eight inches of brick arches below the concrete to help dissipate the heat. The whole floor system was supported by steel beams that bore the weight of the concrete, bricks and heavy kitchen stoves.

Work is on track for a June 30 completion, True said.

Most of the financing will come from a $1 million state grant administered by the Washington State Historical Society. The National Trust also will spend some of its income from rental properties on the project.

The building is in the West Barracks portion of the site, which is owned by the city of Vancouver. The National Trust manages the property.