Off Beat: Old-school construction boosts Academy restoration

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Mother Joseph’s Old World approach to architecture has paid off for modern stewards of her work.

The Hidden family just sold The Academy to the Fort Vancouver National Trust, which will renovate and preserve the landmark.

Restoring a 139-year-old building is always a challenge, but it could be worse, said Monte Hidden.

Worst-case scenario? The Academy could exist only in faded photographs, like so many downtown buildings and Fort Vancouver structures.

But Mother Joseph’s concept of institutional architecture was defined by the imposing churches she saw in her native Quebec. They were very much Old World: built to last.

So when Mother Joseph designed what became the biggest structure north of San Francisco, she put Lowell Hidden -- Monte’s great-grandfather -- to work as a brick maker.

Monte, who started working in the Hidden brickyard when he was 7 or 8 years old, estimates that 3 million bricks went into the Providence Academy.

Mother Joseph had an advantage over the other developers of Vancouver’s historic core. The Army and the city were building with government money; she spent church money, Hidden said.

Check the blueprints

The original owners still have a rooting interest in the building. Loretta Zwolak Greene, archivist in Seattle, said the Sisters of Providence have blueprints and vintage photos to help with the restoration.

Another aspect of construction helps. Asbestos is a common rehab problem in old buildings. It was used for decades as insulation, but causes lung cancer.

The old school is so, well, old school that Mother Joseph’s building crew didn’t use asbestos to wrap pipes, Hidden said. They insulated the pipes with horse hair wrapped in linen.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.