Inslee tours Providence Academy, leaves his mark

Governor signs cupola, talks up $1 million investment in building's future

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian Breaking News Reporter

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Holding on to a rickety wooden ladder, Gov. Jay Inslee leaned over and signed the interior wall of the cupola at Providence Academy.

During a tour Saturday of the massive downtown Vancouver building, Inslee joined in on the longtime tradition and added his name to the wall’s already rich history.

And rightfully so. Earlier this year, Inslee signed a supplemental capital budget that secured $1 million to make much-needed upgrades to the Providence Academy.

Alongside local dignitaries, Inslee took in the many details of the 142-year-old building. He admired the vaulted ceilings of the building’s chapel before pulling aside a bride to tell her that if her husband-to-be should get out of line, she should call her governor.

But more impressive than the original moulding was learning that the building was home to about 65 businesses. That meant, Inslee said, the $1 million would also benefit economic development.

“The delight is that (the investment) is not just preserving an amazing part of the state’s history, but you’ve got 65 nascent businesses here,” Inslee said. “It’s rare where you get historical asset where you can do so much with present usage.”

The building dates back to 1871, when Mother Joseph of the Sisters of Providence planned, fundraised and oversaw the building of the massive brick cross-shaped building. It opened in 1874 as an orphanage and school. It was the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest and the biggest building on the West Coast north of San Francisco.

Mother Joseph went on to establish 29 hospitals, schools, and orphanages throughout the Northwest, and originated what now is Providence Health & Services.

The academy closed in 1966 and three years later, the family of Lowell Hidden, who supplied the bricks for the building, purchased Providence Academy.

In 2015, the Fort Vancouver National Trust raised $5 million in grants and donations to purchase the building.

The Fort Vancouver National Trust now uses the space as a business incubator, using the three floors and more than 60,000 square feet to house about 65 businesses.

“This building has been a pillar in our community and one of the most significant buildings in our state,” said Michael True, the Trust’s president and CEO. “At the same time, it’s operated in a way that supports the economic development needs of our community.”

However, True said, for the past 30 years the leaky roof has been a problem. The only protection for further damage, he said, is about 80 five-pound buckets spread across the attic floor, he said.

The $1 million will go toward emergency repairs to the roof and toward renovating the south porches.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, who represents Vancouver in the 49th Legislative District, also joined the tour and signed her name to the cupola.

“I advocated very strongly for the funding needed to renovate and repair the roof,” she said. “We knew that if the building were allowed to fall into further disrepair it was at some point going to be beyond saving.”

Cleveland history but added that it has personal importance, too.

“I was born on this very campus … so I feel a real tie to the history,” she said. “This is such a treasure for our community. (The building’s) history is not just important to this community but with our state and to this nation.”