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Clark Asks: Abandoned Academy buildings may rise from ruins

The Historic Trust ponders what to do with ‘creepy’ piece of history

By , Columbian business reporter
Published: October 12, 2019, 6:00am
10 Photos
Holly Chamberlain of The Historic Trust opens a door to the former laundry building on the Providence Academy campus during a tour. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
Holly Chamberlain of The Historic Trust opens a door to the former laundry building on the Providence Academy campus during a tour. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A Columbian reader asks: “What’s with the creepy, abandoned building in the Providence Academy parking lot?”

This is a very timely question, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, we’re coming up on Halloween, so this is the perfect time to talk about creepy, abandoned buildings. Secondly, the fate of this particular building is actually the subject of an active discussion, one which is expected to conclude in the next six months.

Before we go any further, we should clarify that we’re actually talking about three buildings, or rather, two buildings and one smokestack. The trio of brick structures sits in the northeastern portion of the Providence Academy parking lot. They’re all physically connected to each other, so it seems safe to assume this question refers to the three of them collectively.

Whether they’re “creepy” is a matter of personal aesthetic preferences, but they are most definitely abandoned. All the doors and windows have been covered with plywood, and their exterior walls are overgrown with ivy. The smaller of the two buildings is also missing half of its roof.

The Columbian reached out to members of The Historic Trust to learn more about the history of the three structures. The Vancouver nonprofit owns the Academy, along with its campus and the ancillary buildings.

Once upon a time, those buildings were critical parts of the overall Providence Academy, which included an orphanage, a school and offices of the Sisters of Providence. The largest of the creepy buildings, known as the laundry building, is a rectangular two-story structure that was built as an auxiliary industrial space to serve the population at the Academy, according to Holly Chamberlain, the Trust’s director of historic preservation and properties.

The architectural style of the laundry building closely resembles that of the main Academy building, Chamberlain noted — particularly in the arches at the tops of the windows — but it’s absent in historical photos taken immediately after the Academy was completed in 1873.

“We don’t know exactly when (the laundry building) was constructed,” she said. “One can assume it wasn’t that long after the Academy.”

The laundry building is visible in photos from the 1890s, Chamberlain said, so its construction can at least be narrowed to a roughly 20-year period.

The second building is called the boiler building. It was designed by architect Robert Tegen and built in 1910 to supply heat not only to Providence Academy, but to the still-under-construction St. Joseph’s Hospital to the north via pipes that ran under the road.

The smokestack was built along with the boiler building, and the boiler building was grafted on to the laundry building by a one-story connecting structure.

The hospital across the street is gone, but remnants of the vintage HVAC system remain in the main Academy building. The lower interior walls of the chapel and some of the hallways are still adorned with arrays of pipes that once circulated hot water to heat the building.

The boiler itself is also still inside the boiler building, but curious visitors will have to settle for glimpsing it through cracks in the building’s walls. Both buildings are closed for safety reasons due to severe structural deterioration.

The Trust acquired the Academy campus in 2015 and embarked on a multi-year project to renovate and restore the main building. One of the group’s first steps was to sell most of the west and north sides of the campus — areas which are currently gravel parking lots — and use the proceeds to fund the restoration of the main building.

The developer is Wilsonville, Ore.-based Marathon Acquisition and Development, which has been developing its plans for the site in partnership with the Trust.

Marathon and the Trust unveiled Phase I of the project last year, detailing plans for two apartment buildings on the west side of the campus. Plans for Phase II debuted last month, outlining two more apartment buildings and a garage along the north side.

The Phase II redevelopment area includes the land where the ancillary structures sit, which means it’s decision time: Is it worth trying to preserve the laundry and boiler buildings, or should they be demolished?

“One of the realities is, what is the economic viability of bringing it back?” said Trust CEO David Pearson.

The city of Vancouver has imposed a March deadline for the Trust to make that decision, and officially the Trust says it’s still studying the matter.

However, Pearson said the reality is the laundry and boiler buildings have almost certainly deteriorated beyond repair. The Academy building can be restored because it’s been in constant use and kept in a habitable condition, he said, but the ancillary structures have languished for about 40 years.

The smokestack might be the one exception. It’s still in comparatively good condition, Chamberlain said, and the Trust is currently looking into whether and how it could be repaired. Some of the concept art for Phase II shows the smokestack preserved as part of the historic campus.

“I think it’s pretty safe to say our focus is on the smokestack,” said Stacey Graham, who chairs the Trust’s board of directors.

There are a few bricks missing and some of the mortar would need to be replaced, Chamberlain said, but the biggest challenge would be to find a way to bring the tower up to modern seismic standards. Stacks of bricks generally don’t do well in earthquakes, so an 80-foot-tall smokestack can’t be left standing next to a future apartment building without reinforcement.

There are two likely options, she said, based on similar smokestacks that have been preserved elsewhere: crews could either stabilize the tower with a network of external guy wires, or they could build a new solid structure inside the hollow center of the tower, one that could serve as an anchor point for the surrounding bricks.

Once the Trust makes a final decision, it has a second deadline of March 2022 to either remove or renovate the buildings.

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