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June 20, 2021

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Lucky Lager logo distinguishes building

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Heath Dewallace and Mike Starks of Soha Signs in Vancouver paint a replica of the Lucky Lager logo that once towered over downtown Vancouver.
Heath Dewallace and Mike Starks of Soha Signs in Vancouver paint a replica of the Lucky Lager logo that once towered over downtown Vancouver. Photo Gallery

It’s been more than a decade since Lucky Lager’s gleaming red “L” towered over downtown Vancouver.

On Wednesday, the iconic symbol of Vancouver’s landmark brewery re-emerged on the north facade of a downtown building struggling to define itself as a landmark in its own right.

Wallis Engineering purchased Lucky Lager’s former warehouse for $1.7 million in 2007. Owners Bob and Gillian Wallis promptly set about spending another $700,000 remodeling the two-story structure for their own firm and a host of professional tenants.

The painted red logo on the building’s exterior served as the final artistic touch.

“We wanted to make the outside of the building as distinct and cool as the inside,” Gillian Wallis said. “Putting that ‘L’ up there was relatively inexpensive to do.”

It also serves a bright red advertisement of the building’s history and — Wallis hopes — its future as a structure deemed to be worth saving.

As things stand, the new “L” might prove to be a temporary flourish to a doomed building.

Planners with the Columbia River Crossing project now expect that the building will have to make way for a new park-and-ride structure, which will cover a block and a half south of Fifth Street. The planned four-story structure, which would include ground-floor retail space, is being designed with 570 parking spaces for people using an extension of Portland’s light-rail transit system across a new Interstate 5 bridge.

The Wallis building will have to be acquired under the current design, said Scott Patterson, development and public affairs director for C-Tran.

“We’re still in the process of completion of the preliminary engineering,” Patterson said. However, “I think it’s fair to say there’s been a tremendous amount of work that has gotten us to the point where we are now.”

Wallis is hoping the design can still be tweaked.

“I feel there’s still some room to be redesigned for it to miss us,” she said.

Piece of history

The logo recalls a long-dormant piece of Vancouver history.

David Nicandri, director of the Washington State Historical Society, claimed Lucky Lager’s 17-foot-high metal “L” before the old brewery was demolished in 1995. The original has been packed away for more than a decade in a Tacoma warehouse owned by the museum, awaiting the day when the museum can afford to display it properly.

Nicandri said the “L” not only reflects a piece of Washington history, it served as a de facto greeting for motorists entering the Evergreen State from Oregon.

“It’s not terribly unlike the White Stag deer sign over on the other side of the river in Portland, which is a corporate logo the same as Lucky Lager,” Nicandri said. “It has taken on a broader civic, iconic form. I thought, for that reason, the sign ought to be preserved.”

The Wallis building at one point served as a warehouse for the brewery and, in fact, was listed on the Clark County Heritage Register in 2009.

That designation won’t protect it, according to Michael Houser, a Vancouver native who serves as national historic register coordinator for the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Local interest will drive the decision over the building’s future, he said.

“The power to preserve this building lies with the city government, not the state,” added Russell Holter, preservation design reviewer for the agency.

In that case, the building may have some value as a vestige of downtown Vancouver’s rollicking past.

Susan Tissot, director of the Clark County Historical Museum, said the Army’s longtime presence in Vancouver heavily influenced the business environment in the town adjoining the military base. The first brewery sprouted in the mid-1850s.

“This was a saloon town, and there were lots and lots of saloons,” she said. “Common sense says people are going to recognize there’s an opportunity for business.”

Famed Portland brew master Henry Weinhard got his start by investing with a local baker in a brewery that started in 1857.

Within a decade, Weinhard had sold his interest in the brewery and moved on to Portland. By 1867, the early form of what eventually became Lucky Lager took shape on the site across Columbia Street from Esther Short Park. Lucky Lager continued turning out working-man’s brew until the sprawling plant finally closed in 1985.

The converted warehouse is effectively all that’s left of the old brewery.

“When they build this new bridge, there are going to be compromises,” Tissot said. “What I think the community should be thinking about is looking at the landscape of Vancouver and thinking about what is it you want to preserve?”

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.

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