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Demolition of Providence Academy smokestack begins

Crews disassembling Vancouver landmark brick by brick; restoration had been deemed too expensive

By , Columbian staff writer
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Workers begin the brick-by-brick demolition of Providence Academy's smokestack on Wednesday. The iconic structure, built in 1910 along with a boiler room that warmed neighboring Academy buildings, was deemed too expensive to restore and several preservation efforts over the years were unsuccessful.
Workers begin the brick-by-brick demolition of Providence Academy's smokestack on Wednesday. The iconic structure, built in 1910 along with a boiler room that warmed neighboring Academy buildings, was deemed too expensive to restore and several preservation efforts over the years were unsuccessful. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

One of Vancouver’s historic imprints in the sky slowly came down Wednesday as construction crews began disassembling the Providence Academy’s smokestack brick by brick.

Vancouver-based environmental construction group 3 Kings Environmental Inc. has begun deconstructing the tower, which has stood for more than 112 years. The weakening structure’s neighboring laundry and boiler rooms also will come down.

Crew members started by removing the smokestack’s large white lettering that read “Academy,” which will be put aside in hopes of future use.

Starting from the top, workers began plucking bricks from their decaying spots. They will save intact pieces for future restoration projects next door at Providence Academy, a historically significant institution built by Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart in 1873.

Crews anticipate shaving off 20 feet of the 90-foot-tall smokestack by the end of today or Friday morning. The remaining structure will be mechanically removed with a high-reach excavator.

After the demolition of the smokestack and adjacent brick boiler and laundry buildings is completed, The Historic Trust will sell the smokestack’s land to Portland-based developer Marathon Acquisition and Development, which will complete its mixed-use development project, Aegis. It is expected to have 140 apartment units split between two buildings, 13,000 square feet of ground-level retail and a 5,000-square-foot public plaza.

It’s unknown how long it will take to demolish the structure, but the Trust said it will be a long and slow process. At times, it may appear that nothing is unraveling.

Although the smokestack will be gone, its historical value will remain.

Providence Archives, the main repository for the Sisters of Providence historical collections, requested various items from the demolition, including a window, woodwork and bricks, said Holly Chamberlain, Trust director of historic preservation. Other items may be used in future exhibitions.

During a meeting before the Vancouver City Council in May, developers proposed including plaques to indicate where the demolished historical structures once stood, a sculpture of the smokestack and other informational signs about the site. The “Academy” lettering and old bricks may be incorporated into some of the new buildings, Chamberlain said.

Prior to the removal of the smokestack’s bricks, exposed ground surrounding the Academy’s laundry and boiler buildings was covered with geotextile fabric, gravel and steel plates to protect potential artifacts from being rained on by debris. An archaeologist remained on site during the process to safeguard historical remnants.

The early stages to dismantle the tower happened quietly with a slight cacophony of construction equipment beeps and roars, yet the course leading to this moment wasn’t as calm.

The Trust and Marathon conducted a preservation feasibility study and launched a fundraising campaign to collect the estimated $800,000 required to bolster the smokestack. But the price tag grew to more than $3 million as stricter safety rules were applied to the smokestack upgrade, which the Trust couldn’t summon, leading the organization to apply for its removal.

“When you lose a landmark, it causes an unease in our minds, and it can make people angry,” said Pat Jollota, local historian and former city councilwoman.

Community members, including former Clark County Historical Commission member Sean Denniston and local philanthropists Connie and Lee Kearney, fought to preserve the smokestack. They argued that the Trust didn’t do enough to find other alternatives for conservation. Much to their dismay, the city of Vancouver approved the Trust’s demolition request in April.

Jollota said there is a silver lining in the demolition.

“The important thing is the main Academy building, because it showcases the artistry of Mother Joseph,” she said. “Keep that intact.”

There may have been moans about the smokestack’s removal, but Mother Joseph may have been rolling in her grave if she’d witnessed how the tower was built, Jollota said. The smokestack, which was created in 1910 after Mother Joseph died, was not stacked with reinforced brick. Instead, it was thrown together with brick and mortar without a brace, making it rickety and unsafe in its old age, she added.

By reallocating resources to the Academy building, its long list of upgrades can be tackled, including replacing some of its balconies. Donations and the sale of the smokestack’s land will also be funneled to the main building’s restoration projects.

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