Saturday, January 16, 2010

Officers' Row

What do a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a U.S. President, and the founder of a prestigious Black university have to do with the Pacific Northwest? All three of these men spent time on Officers' Row at Washington's Vancouver Barracks.

Built in the late 1800s, this collection of stately homes served as residential housing for many of the officers and families stationed here. From its beginnings in 1849, this army base functioned as the center of military operations in the Pacific Northwest until World War II, when activities moved north to Ft. Lewis near Tacoma.

The row of officers’ homes gradually fell into disrepair and in 1984, the neglected properties were deeded to the City of Vancouver for $1. While it might have seemed like a terrific bargain, one city official referred to the properties as “21 white elephants nose to tail.” It took four years and $11M in renovation funds from the city and state to transform the properties into today’s line-up of beautifully restored houses stretching along the north side of Evergreen Boulevard. Most of these are occupied by private businesses or townhouses, but a few are open to the public.

In the middle of Officers’ Row, is the Marshall House, built in 1886 for the local commander and, by far, the most imposing building. With its broad front porch, bric-a-brac trim, and rounded tower, this Queen Anne Victorian served as the center for social life in the 1880s and 90s. Between 1936-1938, the house was occupied by General George C. Marshall, who served as commander of the base and supervised nearly 30 CCC camps scattered about the Pacific Northwest. Later positions in his illustrious career included Army Chief of Staff in World War II, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State. But, he is best known for the Marshall Plan which directed the economic development of post-war Europe and won him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. He and his wife described their time in Vancouver as the best of their lives.

A few doors down, is the Grant House, constructed in 1849 and the first house on Officers’ Row. Ulysses S. Grant served as quartermaster of Vancouver Barracks during the 1850s, and, while he never lived in the house, he did frequent it often. The property served as an officers’ club for more than a quarter of a century and was named for Grant in honor of his impressive military career and years as President. Easily identifiable by its two-storied porch and display of American flags, it now houses the Restaurant at the Historic Preserve.

The Howard House, near the west entrance, carries the name of one of its occupants, General Oliver Otis Howard. After a successful stint in the Civil War, Howard was placed in charge of the Freedmen’s Bureau, commissioned to develop education programs for newly-freed black slaves. He went on to found Howard University in Washington, DC and later served as its president. In 1873, he was sent to Vancouver Barracks where he directed several campaigns against native Tribes, including the infamous Nez Perce War. The house, built in 1879, is an excellent example of late-19th century Italianate style.

Officers’ Row is only one attraction in a locale jam-packed with history. Across the parade grounds and down towards the Columbia River are reconstructed Fort Vancouver and Pearson Field, the oldest operating airfield in the U.S.

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