One of the important measures of our community’s future will be how well we treat our past. As one of the oldest Euro-American settlements in the West, Vancouver has a special reason to remember and honor its roots. First an outpost of the British Hudson’s Bay Company, then part of the American frontier, and finally a vital source of World War II shipping, we have a unique story to tell that includes everything from beaver pelts to Liberty Ships.So progress toward restoration and preservation of The Academy building at 400 W. Evergreen Blvd. comes as welcome news. The large, stately building was built in 1873, 15 years before statehood, by the remarkable Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart. More than a century before the term “renaissance woman” came into vogue, the leader of the Sisters of Charity of the House of Providence in the Territory of Washington designed and built The Academy as a school and headquarters for her Catholic charity. The school closed in 1966, and the building found new owners in Vancouver’s Hidden family, whose ancestors had supplied the bricks for the structure. In May, the Fort Vancouver National Trust announced it would purchase The Academy.
As The Columbian’s Cami Joner reported in a recent story, the trust is in the process of raising money, preparing for initial work and planning additional work for the site. The nonprofit trust’s fundraising goal is $16 million, and so far about $2.3 million has been raised. The money will go toward the $10.6 million purchase price of the property, plus be used to leverage grants and other sources of money that can be tapped for restoration and preservation of the entire 7-acre property.
The Academy building itself is structurally sound, but has to be brought to modern standards, such as meeting seismic and energy codes. Currently the building is mostly used as office space, though the original chapel remains popular for weddings. It’s likely that in the future the three-story main building will continue to be used for office space and similar private enterprise. But perhaps it will someday offer more reasons for the general public to visit.
The Trust is working with Art DeMuro, president of a Portland real estate redevelopment firm, to create a plan. DeMuro says that most of his redevelopment projects involve for-profit uses. Among his Portland projects are the White Stag Block, the Ladd Carriage House and Fire Station No. 7 on Southeast Stark Street. “We don’t build museums, we build commercial properties that make a profit,” he told Joner. With that profit, of course, comes sustainability.
Though The Academy will be preserved, there are still some unanswered questions around the site. The biggest concerns Interstate 5, which for decades has run through a trench dug at the edge of Vancouver Barracks. The Evergreen Boulevard overpass provides a thin connection from the historic West Barracks area to The Academy, but the Columbia River Crossing project could add a wide cap over the freeway, which in turn would create an open public plaza in front of The Academy, roughly from the rear of the old Post Hospital building to the new Vancouver Community Library.
It will likely be many years before the community can fully appreciate and use historical structures such as The Academy. Restoration will cost millions, and the source of the money isn’t clear. Our weak economy exacerbates the problem. But it’s good that we at least recognize how much opportunity for our future comes directly from our past.