While living in the moment is a good thing, taking a gander at the past has distinct benefits, including a better understanding of the moment we are in. “History is the construction manual for society,” says Brad Richardson, executive director for the Clark County Historical Museum. “It’s all connected: the past, present and future.” This is certainly the case with the history surrounding Clark County’s Fort Vancouver Regional Library (FVRL) system, which dates to Hudson’s Bay times in 1833. One special Vancouver library built in 1963 at 1007 E. Mill Plain Blvd. and admitted Nov. 6, 2019 to the Clark County Heritage Register, shines with historical significance and design status that, along with other historic local structures, give Clark County unique architectural identity.
“Each building, site, and space in Clark County has this amazing potential to tell stories that have never been told and help us better understand how we’ve reached this point in our collective narrative,” explains Richardson. “These (historic) nominations help to create a dual sense of stewardship – stewardship of space and stewardship of story.”
The former library on East Mill Plain, now serving as the FVRL Operations Center, has a narrative that represents three important Clark County stories. First, there is the deep connection to the long history of the FVRL system. This includes the land on which it is built and its historic occupants, along with the significant growth and expansion of the FVRL district from 1963 to 2011 when it relocated to downtown Vancouver and doubled its size.
There is the prominent career of Clark County librarian Eva Santee who championed the creation of the FVRL District and the construction of the 1963 Mill Plain library itself.
And finally, the project was the first major design commission for Clark County architect Don Cassady, which launched his career. Cassady went on to design many buildings spanning four decades for important public and private institutions throughout Clark County and the Pacific Southwest.
“This site is close to our heart, because we worked with Don so closely for so many years before we got the building on the Clark County Heritage Register,” says Richardson. “For professional historians, it made sense for the Register—it’s a place of significant historical importance—but we thought it would be great to also give Don this gift of recognition in our own way. He is a figure of historical importance.”
Don Cassady might blush at the compliment. Nearly 94, the talented watercolorist, father of six, and retired master architect seems confident, yet humble, before praise over his numerous Clark County design accomplishments and awards.
“I had the luck to have the library board and Eva Santee think I could handle the project, which was a pretty good-sized project,” recalls Cassady. “She was a librarian dedicated to her work. She was very personable and a great lady to work with on the library. She had a lot of input, and we used it successfully.”
The Vancouver City Council and Santee insisted the FVRL building be accessible among many other needs. It is likely one of the earliest examples of considering accessibility in a Vancouver public building.
Cassady, who had his own firm in 1959, explains that while he was preparing his design proposal for the FVRL Mill Plain building in 1962, he toured libraries throughout Washington and met with various architects. He also met with Maryan Reynolds, former Washington State’s head librarian in Olympia from 1951 to 1975. This dedicated effort is among the reasons he was selected for the project.
“I was awarded a signature contract, and I knew in my own mind it was a step stone to the future,” shares Cassady. “I knew in my mind that I could do it.”
Character-defining features of the historic library building, according to an article by historians Brad Richardson and Janet Anderson in “Clark County Washington History 2020,” include its colonnade at the main entrance, aluminum ribbon window walls with aluminum panels, use of brick, its smooth-form concrete, and its original building finishes. Cassady used the newly discovered plastic-like qualities of concrete to create new forms. These elements soften the starker ones prevalent in mid-century modern architecture.
Concrete is Cassady’s favorite material. He likes its fluidity, strength, and composition. “I am fascinated by concrete,” says Cassady. “There is nothing new under the sun. Good thought, good materials, and how they blend together into a design. Into logical form and function.”
When reflecting on his life and career, Cassady would do it again. “It’s pleasurable to be in a career field where people appreciate your designs and what you do,” he says. “The world has been good to me. I can feel that.”