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Fort Vancouver Historic Site Renovations Under Way

What is most remarkable about the multi-faceted project is the old-fashioned handwork required for a significant portion of the rehabilitation project.

Fri August 07, 2015 - West Edition
Lori Tobias

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the multi-faceted project just underway at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is not the high-tech construction techniques commonly called for these days, but rather the old-fashioned handwork required for a significant portion of the rehabilitation project.

The National Park Service recently awarded Pacific Tech Construction of Kelso, Wash., the $11.28 million contract to rehabilitate the utilities and buildings at the historic site in Vancouver, Wash. The work involves renovations to several buildings, including a 33,000-sq. ft. (3,065.8 sq m) historic double barracks, a modern 5,000-sq. ft. (464.5 sq m) maintenance building, phase one of the utility replacement and exterior renovations to two additional large double barracks.

But because of the historical nature of the work, workers will take painstaking measures to maintain the original character of the post.

“The historical ramifications are the biggest issue,” said Daniel Orr, project manager of Pacific Tech. “Both in the interior and on the exterior. We are retaining elements on the interior, such as old wood custom moldings dating to 1907, as well as the old cast iron radiators. They’ve asked that we renovate and maintain the look of those. The metal tile ceilings in the building also have to be renovated. We have to take them down, number each one so they go back in the right order. We’ve cataloged everything on the interior and exterior. One of my staff just reported that she has over 900 photographs. We are putting that into a PDF file so we can look at the building and see in the photos what we have to do with that room to help preserve any historical elements. That has been unique. We don’t usually have to go to that level of detail as far as documenting.”

But an even bigger, more sensitive area is the burial ground dating back to the early 1800s when the Hudson’s Trading Company made Fort Vancouver as their Pacific Northwest base of operations.

“Basically, we have a sensitive site that requires we consult with the tribes and the state historical preservation officer on our design and they have to weigh in whether what we are doing is an adverse action,” said Ray Cozby, project manager with the Parks Service.

Workers will make modifications to the storm sewer system and the sanitary system, add a new water line and make minor improvements to the power system. All of that will be put underground. Crews will avoid the actual cemetery, but because the Army had long ago moved some of the bodies, no one is entirely sure where on the grounds they might be located.

“The new systems will be laid on the existing grade and then we will fill in over to get our cover with soil and landscape,” Cozby said. “It’s a sloping site so it should blend in. That was sort of an innovative approach to dealing with concerns on the cemetery.”

But even so, the Park’s historical curator will be watching the crews’ every move.

“In some of the area there is about a foot of fill, so we don’t have to worry about the top 12 inches,” said Orr. “But it all has to be done by hand digging. We’re not allowed to use machinery. We will hand dig it and put the dirt in barrels. If we run into bones or buttons, we actually have a plan. We will stop working and move to another place while the person with the Park Service investigates. We have to give him 48 hours’ notice that we are going to be digging anywhere in the burial ground. They are right there beside us. They go through the dirt thoroughly.”

Additional work includes raising building porches that have sunk over the years to make them wheelchair accessible, installing an elevator, lead abatement, new paint, sheet metal roofing and new shingle roofing.

“The buildings themselves are historic structures and so we are treating them as such and removing modern alterations that occurred over time,” Cozby said. We also have to meet today’s codes for accessibility and fire. That is always a challenge to conceal things and yet meet code requirement. We think we’ve come up with some solutions. Another national park is Golden Gate and they’ve got the Presidio and East Fort Back where they have done similar rehabilitation for offices. We learned through them some technique and design options.”

When the rehabilitation is complete, the Park Service hopes to attract government and private agencies to lease the buildings, using that money to continue renovations.

“We will change the front entrance so it is a lobby for visitors,” Cozby said. “We will have an education component in the lobby, and a natural courtyard on south side. We’ll put in some grass and nice landscaping — it’s cement now — without changing the character too much. It will happen over time. Not in neat phases; it’s more as we can manage it.”

“This project is a major step toward realizing the vision of the Vancouver Barracks as a dynamic, public service campus which welcomes and involves the public in creative ways while preserving the nationally significant historic barracks structures, landscapes, archeological features, collections and histories,” said Tracy Fortmann in a press release announcing the contract award.

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