A history told in bricks
Located in the heart of downtown Vancouver, Washington, The Providence Academy is a beloved old brick building with a long and storied past. Known locally as just “The Academy,” it is a link to Vancouver’s past and a testament to the strength and longevity of Hidden Bricks. While no bricks are technically “hidden” at the Academy, the building was built using bricks made by Lowell Hidden, of the Hidden Brick Company. It is a tale of two fascinating people brought together in one fascinating building.
Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart arrived in Vancouver from Montreal, Canada with the intent of establishing a mission in the new American west. She and four other nuns made the arduous journey and arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1856. They were not able to book a room online ahead of time and arrived without any arrangements for where they would stay. The local Bishop offered the use of his home’s attic space to the women as shelter until long-term arrangements could be made.
A year later, the nuns established a school in a one-room rustic cabin at Fort Vancouver. There they welcomed orphans, the sick, and elderly. With a smallpox epidemic ravaging the Native American population near the Fort, they were not short of need, but soon short on space. They desired to find a permanent location where they could set up a school, a hospital, a mental hospital, and an orphanage in this new frontier town.
It took over a decade to raise the money, but Mother Joseph finally was able to begin construction of the Academy on a 7 acre plot of land within walking distance just west of Fort Vancouver. She herself designed the building and supervised the construction, using Hidden Bricks.
Mother Joseph hired a local man-of-all-trades, Lowell Hidden, to provide her with over a million bricks to construct the Academy. Lowell owned the Hidden Brick Company and was not a local man – few in the area were. He was born in Vermont and had sailed to San Francisco as a young man, looking for work. He was hired to work on a farm in Vancouver, and used his carpentry skills and brick making skills to build much of downtown Vancouver. He was hired by the city to build a dock on the Columbia River that had been damaged by flooding. He opened a fence rail business. You can find his bricks on many iconic buildings in Vancouver including the St. James Cathedral, the Hidden Brick Horse Barn at 13th and Washington Street, which currently houses a vintage furniture shop, the Clark County Historical Museum, and his own house and his son’s next door at W. 13th and Main St. The site of his brick making yard is now the BrickHouse restaurant and craft brew tap house.
Hearing of his successes, his brothers joined him in Vancouver. Lowell’s oldest brother came and operated the Pacific House Hotel, owned by Esther Short (of Esther Short Park fame.) One brother planted the first prune orchard at 26th and Main which helped drive Clark County’s successful prune industry. Another brother came to Vancouver and became an architect. Yet another brother arrived and became a fruit grower. Lowell Hidden is credited with initiating Vancouver’s first street railway, the state school for the deaf, the county fair, and one of the city’s first banks. The influence of the Hidden family on downtown Vancouver is unmistakable.
The House of Providence
Now dubbed the House of Providence, the Academy building was the largest brick building north of San Francisco at the time. The imposing T-shaped four-story building is recognizable by its exterior gallery porches that line the building, and its tall bell tower. French colonial architecture design elements are features on the symmetrical Georgian revival building and show how Mother Joseph herself was influenced by her upbringing in Quebec. Inside the building are multiple floors containing small business offices. Inside you’ll be amazed at the chapel which was added in 1883. The three-story high altar is a surprising find and feels light and airy even with stained glass windows. The chapel is still used today for weddings, baptisms, concerts, and lectures. Another surprising find is a grand ballroom, complete with a central stage and built in dance floor.
Even after Mother Joseph herself passed away in 1902, the Academy continued in its mission helping those dependent upon the aid of others. In 1924 the Sisters of Providence moved their headquarters to Seattle, leaving the building as a highly respected school for girls and boys during which time elevators were added. In 1966 the school closed and was in threat of being demolished. In 1969 the Academy site was purchased by the Hidden family, coming full circle. It was converted to commercial space with offices leased to small businesses, and converting one outbuilding into a restaurant. In 1978 the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2015 the Historic Trust (known at the time as the Fort Vancouver National Trust) purchased the site from the Hidden family to help preserve the building and keep it a thriving part of downtown Vancouver. Ongoing refurbishments include replacing the roof, repairing the exterior porches, and updating the grounds.
Employees who have worked at the Academy tell stories of hearing the sounds of children playing in the hallway, lights that turn off and on, items in offices being moved, and a general feeling of “weird vibes” (especially in the basement.) While some find this part of history exciting, others not so much. Docent-led tours will let you visit this fascinating building (during daylight hours) and give you all the fun details of this fascinating building and bring Mother Joseph and her benevolent spirit back to life through story. When you come to visit Vancouver, take a walk around downtown and see if you can find your own Hidden bricks.
Vancouver is just across the Columbia River from most Portland, Oregon stops on the following Columbia River cruises:
Portland to Clarkston