All Over The Map: Iconic smokestack will be demolished in August

Jul 8, 2022, 10:51 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:20 pm

An ornate smokestack just north of the Columbia River is slated to be demolished in August.

Providence Academy is a four-story 19th-century brick building built as a school and orphanage by Mother Joseph of the Catholic order Sisters of Providence in what’s now Vancouver, Washington. It ceased being a school in 1966 and was purchased by a local family. In the past decade, the building was restored, and now has office rental tenants and special event space in the old chapel.

The main building dates to 1873, but the nearby smokestack and boiler/laundry building is from 1910 – eight years after Mother Joseph died. Both buildings and the smokestack have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since the late 1970s.

Mother Joseph, born Esther Pariseau in Quebec in 1823, is a fascinating figure in Northwest history who was later nicknamed the “sister with a hammer” for her carpentry skills and prolific construction activities– learned, by most accounts, from her coachbuilder father.

Drivers on Interstate 5 and pedestrians in downtown Vancouver can readily see the Providence smokestack, which stands just west of the freeway. It’s 80 feet tall, made of brick, and is polygon-shaped. The smokestack is ornate, and it looks like something from a different era or even a different region, such as the industrial Northeast. It also has big white letters, attached in the 1960s or 1970s, that spell “ACADEMY” vertically (and which look out of place on the 1910 structure).

“While it is not as historically significant as the Providence Academy building itself, it does have a lot of significance to residents in the area, and it certainly has sentimental significance, especially to folks who’ve grown up with it,” said Temple Lentz said, executive director of The Heritage Trust, the Vancouver non-profit who’s owned Providence Academy since 2015 and who has invested millions of dollars in the 1873 structure’s restoration and preservation.

Michael Houser, Washington State Architectural Historian for the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, told KIRO Newsradio in an email that the 1910 Providence smokestack has more than just sentimental significance: it’s a one-of-a-kind among its tall and skinny peers in the Evergreen State.

“Most smokestacks are round in plan,” Houser wrote, with “in-plan” meaning when viewed from above, as one would examine a blueprint.

“The polygonal shape of the smokestack at the House of Providence, better known as Providence Academy, is not common in Washington State, and [this] is the last known such structure standing in the state,” Houser continued.

Temple Lentz of The Heritage Trust says the smokestack is unstable and seismically unsafe. They’d like to demolish it, and then sell the land for the construction of a complex of five-story apartments with ground-floor retail. The Heritage Trust already did just that on the west side of the Providence Academy grounds, where two apartment buildings are nearly complete. Lentz says the developer of those apartments – Oregon’s Marathon/Aegis – has an option to purchase the land where the smokestack and boiler/laundry buildings currently stand.

As The Columbian newspaper first reported, The Heritage Trust was granted a demolition permit by the City of Vancouver in March 2022, but the permit included a 90-day delay. During the delay, Heritage Trust was set to explore other options besides demolition – including the feasibility of raising roughly $3.6 million to stabilize and restore the landmark smokestack.

That 90-day delay expired a week ago. Temple Lentz told KIRO Newsradio earlier this week that her group did explore several options.

“We consulted with a structural testing company, contractors, engineers and really tried to find out what we could do,” Lentz said. “Some of the things could have been creating a larger base, adding an internal steel and concrete core, repairing the extensive damage to the outside yolk and different ways to possibly make it work, none of which were either acceptable or economically feasible.”

In the wake of the end of the 90-day pause, the statewide non-profit advocacy group Washington Trust for Historic Preservation expressed disappointment about the now impending demolition, but expressed some hope that mitigation measures will make some difference in how the smokestack will be recalled and perhaps commemorated.

“The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation shares our disappointment with community advocates that the smokestack couldn’t be saved in the face of the $3+ million cost estimate for its stabilization,” wrote the Washington Trust’s preservation programs director Huy Pham in an email to KIRO Newsradio Thursday. “We acknowledge the Historic Trust [of Vancouver]’s efforts to seek economically feasible ways to stabilize the structure including fundraising to the very end of their June 29 deadline.”

“Although bittersweet,” Pham continued, “the Historic Trust has committed to mitigating the loss of the smokestack through thorough photodocumentaries, the on-site reuse of building materials, research and interpretation including educational programs and exhibits in partnership with the Sisters of Providence.”

“We also encourage the Historic Trust to retain the minimum ground level portions of the smokestack as an in-place architectural feature and/or interpretative opportunity, as opposed to the total erasure of its physical existence,” Pham wrote – though that last part might be difficult, given The Heritage Trust’s plans to sell the real estate to apartment developers.

A review of Clark County Historic Preservation Commission minutes as far back as 2018, when The Heritage Trust first publicly discussed possible demolition of the smokestack, shows that several community members expressed concern at that time that the smokestack was an important part of the “viewshed” or the visual landscape in Vancouver. Others pointed out that development of the grounds around the 1873 Providence Academy was taking place in a piecemeal fashion – rather than according to a more thoughtful “master plan” – and that construction of five-story apartment buildings on the grounds would ultimately obscure views that have been part of Vancouver for nearly 150 years.

A group of those opposed to the demolition of the smokestack created a Facebook page and blog and posted videos and other materials voicing their concerns. Emails to the group late Thursday received no reply. The latest blog post is from October 2018; the latest Facebook post is from July 2021. It’s unclear why their activities stopped, and why they weren’t able to generate more support for preserving the smokestack.

Temple Lentz of The Heritage Trust says demolition of the 112-year-old smokestack will likely begin in August and will take 6 to 8 weeks to complete.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast 

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All Over The Map: Iconic smokestack will be demolished in August