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Back to future at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

National Park Service work to update fort strikes balance, sometimes returning to less modern look

By , Columbian staff writer
7 Photos
Construction crews help install a new roof at the Quartermaster Storehouse while preserving the original historic fabric at Fort Vancouver National Site on Nov. 21. The old storehouse was one of 16 historic buildings at the site to receive a new roof.
Construction crews help install a new roof at the Quartermaster Storehouse while preserving the original historic fabric at Fort Vancouver National Site on Nov. 21. The old storehouse was one of 16 historic buildings at the site to receive a new roof. (Amanda Cowan of The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site has been a lot of things.

Indigenous people occupied the land for thousands of years. In the 19th century, the Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post was one of the first Euro-American settlements in the Pacific Northwest. Then the U.S. Army occupied the land for more than a century.

In 2012, the military passed management of the land to the National Park Service, which is now tasked with transforming the site into something else.

Today, Fort Vancouver is an amalgamation of all those pieces of history. The job of Park Superintendent Tracy Fortmann and her team is to honor each phase while still helping the site function as a practical, usable place.

It’s easier said than done.

“Through time, there’s a lot of hodgepodge. I’ve sometimes said it was like a big handful of spaghetti, and you throw it against the wall and it just splatters everywhere,” Fortmann said, as she walked past a construction site at the park on a recent day. “It just happens, and life can be messy.”

It’s not the first time the site has undergone a comprehensive overhaul, and it’s unlikely to be the last.

Who’s in charge of what?

Management of the historic site in and around Fort Vancouver is complicated.

Though the various names of the property — Fort Vancouver, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and Vancouver National Historic Reserve — are sometimes used interchangeably in casual conversation, they mean different things. They refer to distinct pieces of land managed by separate agencies.

The National Park Service owns and operates the majority of the site, bordered by East Reserve Street to the east, East Evergreen Boulevard to the north and state Highway 14 to the south, and Fort Vancouver Way to the west. South of East Fifth Street, the NPS boundary extends all the way to Interstate 5.

This national park, formally called the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, encompasses the East and South Barracks, the Parade Ground, and the Pearson Air Museum, as well as the original fur trading post called Fort Vancouver.

Other major landmarks outside the borders of the national park constitute the Vancouver National Historic Reserve. The reserve includes Officers Row to the north (including Grant House and Marshall House), Pearson Field to the east, and Old Apple Tree Park and Waterfront Park to the south. The reserve also encompasses historic sites between Fort Vancouver Way and I-5, namely the West Barracks, the Artillery Barracks and the Post Hospital.

The buildings on Officers Row and surrounding the West Barracks are owned by the city of Vancouver. However, through a master lease, all the properties within the Vancouver National Historic Reserve are overseen by The Historic Trust, a local nonprofit.

— Calley Hair

Since overtaking management of the site seven years ago, the National Park Service has embarked on a series of upgrades to the historic structures remaining at Fort Vancouver, striking a careful balance between maintaining cherished elements while bringing century-old buildings up to code with modern amenities.

The goal, Fortmann said, is to eventually fill the vacant buildings with tenants.

“Rehabilitation, or giving new life to these historic structures, is what we’re all about,” Fortmann said. “We need to respectfully rehabilitate, and understand, and give new life, while not losing the integrity of what made these buildings so special.”

More tenants are coming, said project manager Mary Hazell. In accordance with the site’s master plan, the vacant buildings will eventually be filled with food services, office space and retail uses.

Hazell said she hopes to see the historic site transformed into “a vibrant, active campus with a variety of tenants,” while still sustaining the history that makes it special.

The site’s regional historic archeologist, Doug Wilson, said those ends don’t contradict each other — in fact, they work in tandem.

“The best way to preserve historic buildings is to have people using them,” Wilson said.

Transforming transportation

Even the landscape is historic. There’s a trail that cuts across the site, connecting to the intersection of East Fifth Street and Fort Vancouver Way and extending northeast to a row of U-shaped barracks that front the parade grounds.

According to Wilson, that diagonal pathway is “one of the oldest trails in the area. Perhaps the oldest.”

The route likely once marked the end of the Klickitat Trail, which Native Americans used to traverse the area, Wilson continued.

When Hudson’s Bay Company took over the area, they built a road — now East Fifth Street — parallel to the Columbia River, to connect to the pre-existing trail. When the military moved in, they widened the road to make room for marching soldiers and, eventually, vehicles.

By the time the park service took over the site, the intersection had been paved, and the trail had become Alvord Road.

Changes to the park’s transportation routes were always done on a piecemeal basis, Fortmann said. As an active military site, the layout was formerly purely utilitarian, patched together to fit whatever need the Army might have had at any given moment.

As part of an ongoing series of changes to make the park more walkable for visitors, Fortmann and her team decided to return the trail to its original state. Fresh grass replaced asphalt, and, once a series of projects to adjust the flow of traffic around the site are complete, pedestrians will be able to walk from the southwest corner of the park to the northeast corner without worrying about cars.

The return of the pathway marked a restoration of sorts, Wilson said. Certain features, like the trees that line the trail, are a nod to what was here before.

“These Oregon white oaks are incredibly important,” Wilson said. “They’re of significance to indigenous people, (and) remnant of what was here before the white people, or the colonial people, got here.”

Hazell said crews were also working on overall traffic circulation changes, tweaking the entrance and exit points so that people in cars can still access each area.

“Because it splits the site, there needs to be access to stuff on the north side of the diagonal, as well as access to buildings on the south side,” Hazell added.

Parking lots, too, will need to be shuffled, especially as tenants start to move into the buildings and employees need a place to park.

For example, one lot, located off McClellan Road just south of the east row of barracks, is too sloped to continue to be used for parking. The plan is to replace it with three level terraces, Hazell said. Weather permitting, that work is expected to be completed by spring, and that land will eventually become the main parking lot for employees on the site.

Starting with the shells

Starting in fall 2018, the NPS broke ground on a $3.2 million utilities overhaul involving 16 historic buildings. That was actually Phase II — before that, they’d replaced a portion of the site’s water lines, fire hydrants, sewer lines, and electrical infrastructure.

“We knew that the utility infrastructure was in bad shape before the property was transferred,” said Alex Patterson, the site’s facility manager. “There were definitely water lines from the 1930s that were still active up until a couple of months ago.”

Additionally, all 16 buildings are getting new roofs, with 14 already completed. With the “shells” pretty much ready to go, Patterson said, the site is ready to start attracting new tenants.

Two agencies have already moved in. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest headquarters relocated to the site in 2017. In August, the Bureau of Indian Affairs moved into its newly rehabilitated space, a former Army accounting and finance office built in the 1940s.

Getting the building up to code while retaining its historic character was a challenge. As Hazell pointed out, there weren’t many ADA-compliant wheelchair ramps built during World War II, but that’s not a good enough reason not to build them now. However, crews were able to restore the original flooring and keep the historic layout of the hallways, while sprucing up the space with energy efficient LED lighting and central air conditioning.

They also kept the building’s most interesting feature: a steel, walk-in vault.

“I love Fort Vancouver, and what we’ve done,” said Glen Melville, the BIA’s deputy associate director of its field operations division. Melville had been working toward opening an office at Fort Vancouver for five years, he added. When he saw the historic vault, it was “just a selling point.”

The challenge with getting old historic buildings up and running is that the less change the average passerby notices, the better the project has gone. Utility upgrades aren’t exactly sexy, Patterson pointed out. But before any other uses can happen, before the buildings can be restored to vibrant, functioning spaces, the faucets need to work. The roof can’t leak.

After that, the most crucial part of Patterson’s job is regular maintenance. When it comes to 100-year-old buildings, no news is usually good news.

“It is, in a lot of ways, running a little city,” Fortmann said. “You really have to get in the business of settling cyclic maintenance issues.”

But not all upgrades result in the site looking more modern. Some do the opposite.

Because of the utility upgrade, crews are now capable of taking the above-ground power lines — not exactly reminiscent of a Civil War-era or pre-colonial landscape — underground. The switch will get rid of a visual intrusion that pulls visitors out of the history.

“If you squint your eyes a little bit,” Wilson said, “it’s like you’re back 6,000 years ago.”

Columbian staff writer

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