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SERA Architects with Emmerling Studio and Schommer & Sons: Providence Academy Chapel

SERA Architects with Emmerling Studio and Schommer & Sons win a 2021 Palladio Award for Commercial Craftsmanship.
Providence Academy Chapel

The restored Providence Academy Chapel.

The chapel is the most significant architectural feature at the Providence Academy, which was established by the Sisters of Providence in Vancouver, Washington in 1873.

Through the years, the sisters used the Academy as an orphanage, an office, and a boarding and day school before deconsecrating it a century later and selling it to private owners, who transformed it into a revenue-producing venue for weddings, concerts, and other events.

In 2015, The Historic Trust, a local nonprofit, bought the seven-acre property and began renovating and restoring the signature Academy Building.

One of the group’s primary focuses was on the 2,550-square-foot chapel, which occupies the second and third floors of the four-story structure whose other public space is its first-floor ballroom.

Providence Academy Chapel, interior details of church

The chapel's new color scheme and ecclesiastical-style light fixtures bring the space back to life.

The chapel, which was completed in 1883, is an important part of the city’s history. It was designed by Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, who was the head of the Sisters of Providence’s Pacific Northwest order during the mid- to late 1800s and who reportedly hand-carved some of its key features.

By the time The Historic Trust commissioned SERA Architects to “freshen up” the space, says Steven Ehlbeck, AIA, LEED AP, a senior associate in the firm’s Portland office, the building was in great disrepair.

Working with the artisans brought in by the general contractor, Schommer & Sons of Portland, Oregon, the SERA Architects team repaired the plaster, refinished the white oak floors, installed a new audio-visual system, revamped the electrical system, installed period-style lighting fixtures, and selected a new color scheme.

“Our goal was to refresh the space and integrate modern services to increase revenue without compromising the essential character,” Ehlbeck says. “We were on a short timeline—we only had four months to complete all the construction because The Trust didn’t want to cancel events that had been booked. We were always conscious of funding—we knew we had the right idea, but we had to figure out how to do everything for the best value.”

The refurbishment of the altarpiece, by Philip Emmerling of Welches, Oregon, was key to the success of the project, Ehlbeck says.

Although the team looked into stripping the altarpiece and applying a natural finish, budget constraints prohibited it. Instead, Emmerling was commissioned to faux-grain it and gild the details.

“He was fundamental to achieving the effect we wanted, which was to highlight the work of Mother Joseph and the original woodcarvers,” Ehlbeck says. “The faux-finishing and the application of gilt and metallic paint treatments to make the details pop were critical.”

Emmerling, who matched the color sample provided by SERA Architects, says it’s likely darker than the original, which is natural-stained Douglas fir. (The chapel’s doors and wainscot are oak.)

It took him nearly three weeks to faux grain the altarpiece, which is 32 feet high and 11 feet wide.

“I had to paint it piece by piece, just as it was built,” he says. “There are a lot of nooks and crannies, and the altar’s five feet deep, so there were times I was holding onto the scaffolding with one hand and painting with the other.”

He adds that the top, which was where he started, “was tricky because it has a recessed arch; I had to put an eight-foot ladder on top of the three levels of scaffolding to get in there.”

To draw the eye to the altarpiece, illumination was added under its upper shell and concealed inside the oculus. “It’s washed in light that shows every detail,” Ehlbeck says.

The chapel, which had been whitewashed for decades, was repainted; the area around the altar is a deep blue that draws the eye toward the faux-painted altarpiece, which features a pair of wooden crosses.

“We were able to confirm—through informal investigation of paint colors, photographic evidence, and first-person accounts—that there were at least three distinct color schemes in the chapel since its inception,” Ehlbeck says. “We relied upon large-scale, in-place mockups and collaboration with Emmerling to create the final scheme. We feel the color we selected will make the chapel be instantly recognizable to early patrons.”

oculus and from the altarpiece's upper shell

Illumination from the oculus and from the altarpiece's upper shell bathe it in light.

In addition to reconstructing some of the intricate plaster details on the chapel’s walls and ceiling, the Schommer & Sons team recreated the ornamental buttons on the wainscoting.

“The work was challenging and time-consuming, but all you need to do is look up at the grand ceiling and be amazed,” says Schommer & Sons Project Superintendent Les Davis, who added that the project has personal significance because his mother attended high school in the building from 1958 to 1961.

One major challenge, Davis says, was finding a way to conceal ductwork and electrical conduits where none had previously existed.

“We discovered two abandoned vertical shafts running from the attic all the way down to the basement,” he says. “These shafts enabled us to hide most everything mechanical so as not to take away from the historical look of the space.”

Ehlbeck says that “all the skilled workers helped ensure that this amazing asset to the community could be brought back to life and shared with another generation.”


Design Architect and Interior Designer: SERA Architects

Developer: The Historic Trust

General Contractor: Schommer & Sons

Design-Build Electrical Contractor: Stoner Electric Group

Design-Build Mechanical Contractor: Hunter-Davisson

Design-Build Decorative Painting and Gilded Finishes: Philip Emmerling

Light Fixtures: Craft Metal Products, Juno, Rejuvenations

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