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Vancouver’s historic Providence Academy smokestack to be removed

Councilmembers voted to uphold a permit to demolish the structure

By , Columbian staff writer
7 Photos
Construction workers continue building an apartment building Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, as the Providence Academy smokestack stands in the distance. The Vancouver City Council decided Monday to uphold a demolition permit for Providence Academy’s landmark smokestack.
Construction workers continue building an apartment building Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, as the Providence Academy smokestack stands in the distance. The Vancouver City Council decided Monday to uphold a demolition permit for Providence Academy’s landmark smokestack. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Vancouver City Council ruled Monday to uphold a demolition permit for the Providence Academy’s landmark smokestack.

Council members suggested that the Historic Trust should use the 90-day period after the council’s decision to welcome alternatives to the demolition from third parties.

The council stressed it wasn’t determining the value of the smokestack to the community, rather how the decision-making process should be upheld. It collectively agreed that the structure had historic value.

“I agree that the smokestack is iconic,” said Councilor Erik Paulsen.

Mayor Pro Tem Linda Glover recused herself due to her position as vice chair on the Trust’s board.

The Clark County Historic Preservation Commission voted on July 9 to allow the Historic Trust to demolish the 112-year-old smokestack, finding that it would be too costly to pay $2 million to $3 million to restore it.

Stacey Graham, the Historic Trust’s interim president, said the organization consulted with engineering firms, preservationists and other experts to develop ways to preserve the landmark structure. However, they couldn’t justify paying the expensive rehabilitation costs. The only option left was to request its removal.

Connie and Lee Kearney appealed the decision in late July, arguing that the commission made errors when approving the Trust’s demolition request.

In the Kearneys’ letter of appeal, they claimed that the commission didn’t correctly interpret the city’s municipal code, received improper legal advice after the record was closed, and failed to consider the final mitigation measures before making a final decision.

“The Trust wants to demolish a valuable piece of Vancouver’s history,” Connie Kearney said during the council hearing. “(They want to) destroy an example of our past and what it used to be.”

The appellants also claim the main reason the Trust wanted to demolish the smokestack was to clear a path for the Aegis projects.

The Trust sold property surrounding the Providence Academy to a developer, Marathon Development, which has a master plan to create new apartment complexes adjacent to the academy.

Construction of two six-story buildings took place in the spring as a part of the developer’s Aegis project. A second plan, named Aegis Phase 2, would erect more apartment buildings near where the smokestack stands on Parcel 5. Graham said the site of the smokestack will be landscaped and likely have an exhibit highlighting the academy’s laundry, smokestack and boiler buildings.

In its response, the Trust maintained that the smokestack must be demolished because it is unsafe and the costs outweigh the means, which is in accordance with the city’s municipal code. They argued that the Kearneys misunderstood the law when forming their original argument.

In October, the Kearneys submitted a letter to the council claiming the Trust had access to funding that would properly address the smokestack’s stability. The pair allegedly offered to pay for a $37,500 independent evaluation to determine what the smokestack’s stabilization would cost, and are still willing to do so, according to the letter.

They said they were refused access to the smokestack, which denied them the opportunity to gather evidence to form a counterargument at the July hearing.

According to the Trust, the organization said the Kearneys had the opportunity to submit comments to the commission before the July hearing, as well as contest the organization’s cost assessments. They said the appellants didn’t ask the commission to require the Trust to conduct their own cost study.

The Trust said that the attempt to raise these new concerns after the record was closed violated city code.

Historic value

Providence Academy, as well as its boiler building and smokestack, is on the National Register of Historic Places — the highest level of recognition for historic sites and building in the country, said Holly Chamberlain, the Trust’s director of historic preservation.

Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart and four other Sisters of Providence traveled to Vancouver in 1856 to serve the region. They established a hospital and school the following spring and proceeded to create the region’s first educational, social service and medical networks. This is what eventually became the Providence Health system.

“I don’t think people realize the significance of the five Sisters of the Sacred Hearts’ work at the Providence Academy,” Chamberlain said.

The academy was designed by Mother Joseph, who also served as the construction supervisor. It was built in 1873 and is deemed one of her most outstanding architectural achievements, she said. It is one of two buildings today that have her design imprint.

The Sisters of Providence commissioned the construction of the boiler building and smokestack in 1909 to provide heat for the academy’s main building and St. Joseph Hospital. Chamberlain said the buildings played an integral role in the operation of the site until it went out of use in 1966.