Connecting past & present

Fort Vancouver unveils renovated visitor center

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If you go

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site Visitor Center
  • Winters hours, which run through March 13, are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The visitor center is located at 1501 E. Evergreen Blvd.
  • Other facilities at the historic site, including the reconstructed fort and Pearson Air Museum, are open the same hours. Park grounds will remain open seven days a week from dawn until dusk.
  • For more information, visit www.nps.gov/fova/planyourvisit/hours.htm.
  • A historic site has received quite the face-lift for its 53rd birthday.

    On Saturday, the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center re-opened its doors to the public after an extensive renovation of the 5,000 square foot space.

    “We are thrilled to be breathing new life into this facility for the 100th anniversary of National Parks,” said curator Theresa Langford. “We also really wanted to celebrate the different communities who live here and call it home.”

    The museum first opened its doors in 1962. At the time, 15,000 visitors came to the site each year. Fifty-three years later, 800,000 people make the trek annually to the center and Fort Vancouver.

    “We have outpaced the building’s capacity,” said Alex Patterson, facilities manager. “It really needed to be revamped for more public space.”

    The $1.7 million construction project by DSL Builders was awarded by the National Park Service in July 2014. The Gold/LEED certified building was kept the same size, but essentially stripped to the studs. The roof, heating, plumbing, electrical and ventilation systems were upgraded. Additionally, staff offices were renovated for exhibit space, the lobby was redesigned and ADA improvements were made. The Friends of Fort Vancouver have an on-site office.

    The rehabilitated visitor center also includes hands-on exhibits highlighting the history of the site, a new theater, exhibits featuring local American Indian arts and community spaces.

    “It was limited as to what we could do to the exterior, but we tried to make it look more inviting and obvious that it was a visitors center,” Langford said.

    History is on display everywhere, even in the bathrooms. There, visitors will see replicas of Spode China, popular at Fort Vancouver from the 1830s to the 1850s, included in the wall and tile designs.

    “The China collection is really important to the museum and we are dedicated to sharing it with visitors, even if it’s in the bathroom,” Langford said.

    The museum is serious about its history, with $125,000 spent on upgrading the exhibits.

    “Before, it was more of a faux trading post,” Langford said. “We are modernizing things and want them to be more interactive. This is really coming into its own as a more welcoming space.”

    Superintendent Tracy Fortman noted that Fort Vancouver is the closest national park in the area, and one of 408 across the United States.

    “We all want this to be a warm, welcoming space that we can share with the entire community,” she said. “We also have people from all over the world who come here to visit. We all came into this project with a real sense of responsibility and wanted it as interactive and thought provoking as possible. National parks are forever and they belong to everyone. We recognize that financial times are tough and we didn’t have unlimited funds.”

    Part of the newly renovated museum includes a space dedicated to featuring the work of Native American artists.

    “We wanted to celebrate the different communities here and those native populations needed and wanted a voice,” Langford said.

    Meagan Huff, museum technician, noted that history will be presented at the new site in a variety of ways, including multimedia and interactive exhibits, as well as themed display cases, which are interchangeable.

    “We wanted to do a few things with this,” she said. “We wanted to present the history of the site in different ways and help people discover and explore personal connections. History is not this dead, boring thing. It’s alive and it’s exciting.”

    There are tables throughout the museum with activities that connect the past and present.

    “One of the most fun things about coming up with these exhibits was helping people see how history is relevant to their lives,” Huff said.

    The museum and historic site surrounding it rely heavily on volunteers to help visitors experience the different historical aspects. Twenty-eight of them are from Camas and Washougal.

    Marie Pillar of Camas has been volunteering at the visitor center for 10 years. She fondly remembers trips to New York’s Fort Niagara as a young girl, and wanted to help offer that experience to others.

    She spends much of her time in the curatorial department, helping to catalog artifacts and working in the research library.

    “I really like it when visitors are able to get a real feel for what they are going to see at the actual fort after they see the visitors center,” she said. “I feel good that people are interested in learning more about the area. Every time I go there, I learn something new.”

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