Vancouver soldiers on with historic barracks renovation

Work done on $5.1 million job; remodel of hospital faces escalating construction costs

By Katy Sword, Columbian staff writer

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When the U.S. Army turned the West Barracks over to the city of Vancouver, the historic site was in less than ideal shape.

“Things were just in a general state of decay and needed quite a bit of work,” said Jon Sears, capital project manager.

But now? “You can feel the history.”

The city recently celebrated the renovation of four century-old buildings at the West Barracks: the Infantry Barracks, Artillery Barracks, Spruce Division Records Storehouse and Dental Surgeon’s Building.

The buildings came out better than expected, according to Jan Bader, Vancouver’s program and policy development manager.

Walking from building to building, there’s certainly connectivity. The original tin ceilings remain, albeit with a fresh coat of paint. Wood floors from 1904 run throughout. Even the old radiators still adorn rooms and hallways, although they’re purely decorative at this point.

“We learned our lesson the first time,” Bader said, when the first floor of the Artillery Barracks was renovated in 2011 without the addition of air conditioning.

“It was unbearable in the summertime,” she said. “You want it to be as period-appropriate as possible, but it’s not always a good idea.”

Now with air conditioning, the Artillery Barracks will soon be home to RealWear, a wearable technology company relocating to Vancouver from California.

Though the buildings are ready for new lives, not all of the space can be reused. The attic of the Artillery Barracks will remain permanently closed.

“The army used (the attic) as a firing range,” Bader said. “So despite a couple scrubbings, we can’t get the lead out, so that’s why it’s closed off.”

The Dental Surgeon’s Building also posed a problem during its rehabilitation. Five additions were discovered as well as a pit in the floor from an old boiler connection.

“This building cost so much per square foot if we had looked in our crystal ball and knew how much this little building would cost us we probably would have torn it down,” Bader said. But now that the building hosts Exquisite Crystals, a retail business, she concedes the space turned out beautifully.

The Spruce Division Records Storehouse, formerly known as the Quartermaster’s Storehouse, also shows potential, Bader said. The building is empty at the moment, but Kaare Hyde, The Historic Trust facilities manager, said they’re in talks with a coffee shop to open in the near future.

Speaking of the Spruce building, passers-by will notice the exterior signage still reads “Quartermaster.” The building was originally thought to house the quartermaster, but research proved the space held records. Hence the inaccurate signage.

“It’s on the list, but we need to get through the construction first to see if we have any money left over,” Bader said.

The fourth building, the Infantry Barracks, was renovated into apartments, which are rented.

Looking forward

The city will spend the next 30 years paying off the $5.1 million bond that paid for the recent barracks renovation.

Money is on Bader’s mind as the project wraps up because it’s going to take millions more to complete the final building at the West Barracks: the Post Hospital. Original cost estimates fell somewhere around $11 million. Construction could now cost upwards of $35 million.

“The price of construction has gone up just this last year 38 percent,” Hyde said.

“This site doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay that off,” Bader said. “So the only way we do that is if the city council agrees to use general fund money to pay off the bond debt.”

Eliminating the annex building, which is part of the hospital, could save some money as that portion has significant issues to address, but tearing down a historic structure poses its own problems, Bader said. The annex was relocated when Interstate 5 was built in 1952 and attached to the west end of the building.

The general consensus at this point is that the Post Hospital would serve well as an arts building, housing a gallery, artist studios and possibly classrooms.

“The (city) doesn’t want this site to be a drain on the city’s general fund so the goal is to make the site self-sufficient, which it is, but if you bring an artist down here they can’t pay market rate rent,” she said. “We’ve got this dichotomy with making the site self-sufficient and figuring out a way to infuse the arts into it.”

Some artists argue the building doesn’t have to be pristine, just accessible.

“But you need a heat system and it’s got to be safe,” Bader said.

The one thing everyone can agree on: the Post Hospital is going to be a challenge.