A century-old smokestack near Providence Academy is unsafe and will have to be torn down, according to The Historic Trust.
Emblazoned with white letters vertically reading “ACADEMY,” the smokestack stands near an equally old, run-down brick boiler building and a matching laundry, both of which are already marked for demolition.
But there’s a glimmer of hope. The owner of the land, The Historic Trust, would save the smokestack if a donor could step up with about $800,000, according to David Pearson, president of The Historic Trust.
The decision is ripe for heavy backlash in the community and even a lawsuit, said Sean Denniston, vice chair of the Clark County Historical Commission, who recused himself from the commission for this specific decision because he has actively opposed it.
With vines and leaves crawling up its withering red brick, the laundry is the larger of the two brick buildings. It was built sometime around 1880, Pearson said, but no one is exactly sure. The boiler building and its 80-foot-tall smokestack were constructed in 1910.
Workers built them as additions to Providence Academy, an historic landmark that was built under the supervision of Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart in 1873.
The Hidden family purchased the academy, the outbuildings and the surrounding property in 1969, around the time a fire tore through the boiler room and destroyed its roof. The Hiddens sold their holdings to The Historic Trust in 2015. But for more than 40 years, the boiler building, laundry building and smokestack have sat weathering away, Pearson said.
“They’re in really tough shape,” Pearson said. “It’s a safety hazard.”
The Historic Trust plans to keep ownership of the Providence Academy, but it sold the west side of the property to Marathon Acquisition & Development in 2018. The trust also plans to sell the north side of the property, on which the run-down buildings sit.
Marathon seeks to develop the properties into mixed-use, multifamily residential buildings.
Jessica Engman, a historic preservation specialist, has worked with the owners of Providence Academy since 2015. She was the key author of the preservation feasibility study.
“Those structures are probably the worst I’ve seen in my career of historic preservation,” she said, citing work on more than 100 buildings, including the White Stag building in downtown Portland. “They are completely unsafe. It would take an incredible amount amount of money to bring them back to use.”
Many factors make the structures unfit for preservation, Engman said. That includes their poor condition and the inability to scale construction with such relatively small buildings. Another factor is the structures’ difficult footprint, which wouldn’t generate much revenue.
“You won’t get Pearl District rents to offset rehabilitation,” she said. “I’m all about saving about buildings, but I’m also a realist. This is just throwing money after something.”
The boiler room and laundry room were deemed unsafe by the city’s Building and Fire Code Commission in 2012, and that was double-checked after The Historic Trust conducted its own study with Engman.
Pearson told The Columbian that The Historic Trust looked at all the options for saving the smokestack, but the costs couldn’t justify it. Instead, the trust will focus on preserving and upgrading Providence Academy, a large three-story building once used as a school.
“We’ve always had a laser focus on the Providence Academy building,” said John Deeder, board chair.
The trust plans to submit a demolition plan to the city’s Building and Fire Code Commission.
Denniston said the commission could declare the smokestack unfit and dangerous, which would bypass a permitting process involving the Clark County Historical Commission —something he doesn’t think is ethical, he said.
The Historic Trust is in the process of selling the property holding the smokestack and the two brick buildings to Marathon. But even if the sale falls through, The Historic Trust would still seek to tear down the structures because they’re unsafe, Pearson said.
Meeting set Aug. 5
The Clark County Historical Commission will give an advisory decision on only the laundry and the boiler rooms during an online meeting at 6 p.m. Aug. 5. It will be the first time they’ll be officially notified of The Historic Trust’s decision to demolish the smokestack.
An attorney from Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt has asked to address the group, which Denniston indicated might be a precursor to a lawsuit. A letter from the attorney attached to the meeting agenda reflected Denniston’s concerns with bypassing the Clark County Historical Commission’s approval process for the demolition of historic buildings.
Pearson said that he anticipated the committee would ask about the smokestack today, so he wanted to be transparent.
“People are likely to be very upset, especially about the smokestack,” Denniston said on Tuesday. “The Providence Academy is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the smokestack is specifically called a prominent landmark. Everyone sees it when they’re entering Vancouver from the south. The loss of that, especially to have it torn down for development, would have a serious impact on the community.”
Denniston’s chief complaint is that the city and The Historic Trust are not revealing the feasibility study process and the entirety of the study. He suspects the trust is using the safety regulations to avoid having the Clark County Historical Commission hold the decision to issue the demolition permit, he said.
Since buying the property, The Historic Trust has spent $15 million renovating Providence Academy. It already tore down the former El Presidente restaurant building on the south side of the lot. Its next project is to reinforce and restore three stories of porches on the north side of the building at a cost of about $1.5 million. That should be done by June 2021, Pearson said.
Future plans for Providence Academy envision $40 million worth of investment into the buildings and site.
The Historic Trust is considering how to repurpose the demolished structures’ bricks, the “ACADEMY” letters from the smokestack and old boiler parts.
“We’re looking at different ideas,” Pearson said. “We may be able to repurpose the brick for the Providence building. It depends on how powdery the brick is.”
Pearson said the lowest bid to reinforce the smokestack would be more than $1 million, but the trust would foot 20 percent of the cost if a donor would cover the rest. The Historic Trust would consider saving the smokestack up to the point of selling the property and demolishing the buildings, Deeder said.
But even with partial reinforcement, an earthquake could topple the smokestack. The $1 million investment would cause it to fall straight down and not topple, greatly reducing the chance of someone being injured or killed.
Pearson said The Historic Trust has been looking at all options for all the buildings since 2015.
“It’s going to be controversial,” Deeder said. “It’s heartbreaking. We can’t save it from a financial resources perspective. There isn’t a person on the board who doesn’t want to preserve the smokestack. We’re a nonprofit that doesn’t have this kind of money lying around.”