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Nov. 26, 2022

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Time’s up for Vancouver landmark Academy smokestack

Brick structure to be torn down after efforts to save it deemed too expensive

By , Columbian Innovation Editor
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Deconstruction of the old brick Providence Academy smokestack, a landmark of Vancouver, is set to begin Tuesday.
Deconstruction of the old brick Providence Academy smokestack, a landmark of Vancouver, is set to begin Tuesday. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Starting Tuesday, the old brick Providence Academy smokestack, a landmark of Vancouver that greets Interstate 5 passersby, will begin to be taken apart.

Historical groups and philanthropists have tried to save it, but the landowner, The Historic Trust, says it’s too expensive to restore. Instead, it’s focusing efforts and money on preserving and restoring the Providence Academy next door. The smokestack’s land will be sold to developers for new apartment housing to further support the Academy building.

“Demolishing” might be too strong of a description, because the seismically unstable structure’s bricks, along with the nearby brick laundry and boiler rooms, are set to be picked off and repurposed. It will cause the demolition process to last up to two weeks.

Vancouver-based environmental construction firm 3 Kings Environmental Inc. will begin the operation by fencing off the area and using a high-reach excavator to grab bricks off the top of the tower. A processor attachment on the excavator will help keep debris within or close to the radius of the stack, according to a statement from The Historic Trust. Workers may also drape off nearby buildings once they get on site.

Temple Lentz, the president and CEO of The Historic Trust, is also a Clark County councilor but is not running for the position this year. She joined the nonprofit earlier this year after almost all the decisions had been made to take down the smokestack. Lentz replaces interim director Stacey Graham, who replaced David Pearson in 2020.

“We know that this is tough for a lot of folks in the community; it isn’t easy for us either,” Lentz said. “There is not a sense of celebration around the Trust. So much effort went into trying to find a solution to keep these buildings, but it turns out it wasn’t feasible.”

History of smokestack

While the Providence Academy was built in 1873 by legendary Vancouver figure Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the smokestack wasn’t built until after she died.

Architect Robert Tegen designed the boiler plant, and workers built it in 1910 as a heating source for the Academy and St. Joseph’s Hospital to the north across 12th Street. Underground pipes flowed with water more than 225 degrees to the buildings, according to The Historic Trust.

“The one-story, 1,830-square-foot boiler plant operated via burning wood in a large masonry furnace with cast-iron front. The 80-foot tall octagonal brick smokestack is set on a square base on the south side of the building. Tegen’s elaborate brickwork with dentils, herringbone-patterns, dogtooth corners, and diamond-shaped details are reminiscent of some of his other buildings, including the Elks Building in downtown Vancouver, built in 1911.”

The Columbian’s archives have no mention of the boiler room or smokestack construction.

In March 1969, the Hidden Family purchased the Academy and the boiler room for $494,300 with the intent of saving it from demolition and converting the Academy into offices and shops.

It’s not clear when the boiler room and the smokestack stopped running and fell into disrepair.

In 1978, the Providence Academy was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The boiler room and laundry room were deemed unsafe by the Vancouver Building and Fire Code Commission in 2012.

After the Hiddens successfully converted the building to hold business offices and events, they sold the property to The Historic Trust in 2015 for $5 million with the help of donations.

In 2018, the Historic Trust partnered with Marathon Acquisitions and Development with the intent of selling land around the Academy building to further fund restoration efforts of the Academy and potentially the smokestack, laundry room and boiler room.

Attempts to save the smokestack

The Historic Trust worked with Marathon to include the smokestack in the property as apartments began to rise and conducted a preservation feasibility study, which estimated an $800,000 price tag to upgrade the smokestack to a safe condition so it didn’t collapse after a large earthquake.

The Trust launched a campaign to raise the money, but once the city of Vancouver reviewed the plans, it didn’t meet the safety standards. Subsequent bids for the project with stricter safety rules estimated the cost to be more than $3 million, according to the Trust.

The city granted approval for the demolition in April, and the Trust told The Columbian it could not raise enough money to save it.

Throughout the process of applying for demolition, attempts to stop the landmark’s demise fell flat.

Sean Denniston, former member of the Clark County Historical Commission, fought the decision on nearly every step of the process and criticized The Historic Trust and the city for what he said was cutting corners in the code.

Local philanthropists Connie and Lee Kearney spent the past few years seeking another retrofitting cost estimate from New-York based company International Chimney Corp. and Commonwealth Dynamics Inc., which told the Kearneys the cost might be under $1 million.

The Kearneys, who helped fund Trusts’ purchase of the Academy, said that the nonprofit was unwilling to seriously consider any options to save it other than the $3.5 million option. The Trust told them they couldn’t conduct their own study.

“They put roadblocks that were unreasonable,” Lee Kearney said. “When they turned us down on that, we figured it was an effort that wouldn’t be successful.”

“It’s too bad that they’re going to tear down,” Connie Kearney said. “It’s representative of the art and craft that we don’t have now.”

Lentz said that when the Trust “explored options for rehabilitation, including marketing them to experts in historic building redevelopment. Ultimately, no businesses were interested in pursuing rehabilitation.”

“While they must be removed, the Trust takes seriously its responsibility to thoroughly document their histories and continue to interpret their roles in site operation,” Lentz wrote.

Historic Trust focus

The Historic Trust is focusing its effort and money on preserving the Academy building, which still needs funding for a number of projects, including the replacement of some of its upper balconies.

The north porches are nearly complete, which is part of an effort to restore all the porches for $1.2 million

After the smokestack is demolished, the land will be sold to Marathon Management for the Aegis Phase 2 apartment project. Marathon is nearing the completion of two apartment buildings on the west side of Providence Academy. The sale for the smokestack land will close, hopefully, by the end of the year, Lentz said.

The land sales, along with donations, will be used to continue the restoration of the Academy. One of the next projects will be a total landscaping overhaul of the south side of the building, where the “front door” greets visitors, Lentz said. It includes gardens, a plaza, a community gathering place and artistic elements. The Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund was a major donor for that project, Lentz said.

Since 2015, The Historic Trust has raised more than $16.5 million from donors, businesses and foundations to purchase, maintain and rehabilitate Providence Academy.

According to The Historic Trust, members will work to preserve the history of the smokestack, boiler room and laundry room by:

  • Taking large-scale photographs and making them publicly available.
  • Researching and writing an in-depth history of the site.
  • Salvaging historic building materials such as bricks, windows and doors, as feasible for the collections of the Sisters of Providence, the Trust and other historical organizations, and re-use on the site.
  • Continuing the creation of educational programs and exhibits to interpret the inspiring history of the Sisters of Providence for residents and visitors

Visitors to the site during demolition might not see much progress because of the long timeline.

“Any visitors are encouraged to take care, avoid restricted areas, and be aware of their surroundings,” according to Lentz.

This story was updated to accurately state Temple Lentz’s title.

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