Friday, November 26, 2004

By GRETCHEN FEHRENBACHER, Columbian staff writer

Jody Stahancyk’s law group was only half jesting when it asked Vancouver attorney James R. Gregg to come with the $400,000 deal struck to buy the historic Charles Brown House at 400 West 11th St., where he had practiced some 40 years.

The Portland partnership of Stahancyk, Kent & Hook P.C. would finally have a Vancouver location and an opportunity to demonstrate to Clark County residents that it had a sense of community. Gregg, 77, would continue his independent practice there, and the firm would undertake restoration of the somber two-story, time-worn Second Empire-style structure.

“It was a way for people to see that the same way we take care of our clients, we take care of restoring this house,” said Stahancyk (pronounced stuh-han-sik), senior partner in the firm.

That was important: the partners focus on family law, with 80 percent of the work divorce related, and the remainder devoted to estate planning. The firm has locations in Astoria, Bend, and Prineville, Ore., in addition to a downtown Portland headquarters.

Since taking title to the Vancouver property in September, layers of paint have been burned off the outside wood walls and the stone-gray exterior has been repainted the original shade of tan. The partners are researching what colors the trim would have been.

That is only the beginning of work to unlock the building’s past. For instance, a coffin-shaped door opens to a sheer exterior drop from the second floor. (In fact, there is a small platform outside the door, sans railing.)

The original owner is a mystery, but an 1874 deed transfers ownership from Alonzo G. Cook and his wife, Bell Cook, to Charles Brown. Brown’s father, Samuel W. Brown, had arrived in Vancouver in 1861 after Abraham Lincoln appointed him a land agent.

Charles Brown married Rebecca Alice Slocum at the house in 1874. The couple had three daughters. Brown, who was president of the First National Bank of Vancouver, committed suicide along with bank cashier Edmond L. Canby on April 19, 1901, after improprieties were found during an audit of the bank’s books.

The 1930 Vancouver census shows that public school teacher Alice H. Hubbard lived at the house with two wards, but it’s not clear who, if anyone, lived in the house before Mary J. Prindle sold the property in 1940.

Preservation architect

Stahancyk and her partners have been working with Portland preservation architect William Hawkins to find out details of how the house would have looked when it was built. But the house has been spared much of what Stahancyk wryly calls “remuddling.” Details such as a door with an original doorbell, an ingenious revolving-wall panel room vent, and windows with porcelain-knobbed latches remain.

In addition, the partners hope that people in the community with information, photographs or relics associated with the structure’s history will contact them. Teresa L. Foster heads the law firm’s Vancouver office and can be reached at 360-750-9115.

Second Empire-style architecture typically offers an Italianate form with a flat roof, tower, decorative brackets, molded cornices and detail on windows and doors. These homes were built primarily from 1860 to 1880. The term Second Empire is derived from the reign of Napoleon III, who, according to Tom Paradis, a professor at Northern Arizona University, under took “a major transformation of Paris into a city of grand boulevards and monumental buildings.”

The Vancouver building, with an attached two-story cottage in back, presents challenges for the staff, where three members work full time, along with another part-time attorney, and Gregg. The upstairs is reached only by steep, narrow, winding stairs. Ceilings and walls on the second floor are stained from leaking water. There are holes in walls. The mansard roof needs to be replaced. The foundation needs to be reconstructed.

‘Work in progress’

Rooms, with 12-foot ceilings to heat, are not laid out as they would be for a law office. Also, electric wiring ducts are on the wall surfaces and will have to be recessed.

A dilapidated garage was taken down. There is no handicapped access to the building, although work has begun to remedy that.

Still, Stahancyk, the driving force in the restoration, is undaunted. Repeatedly, she chortles, “This house has good bones,” and “This is a work in progress.”

When asked what it will cost, she shrugs, saying she doesn’t know, and projects will be taken on one at a time. Clients have been enthusiastic, she said, adding that the atmosphere is “very enveloping.”

Meanwhile, the firm has rented a storage unit for all of the lumber, square nails and other building parts coming out of the structure during remodeling because, as Stahancyk says, “We don’t know when we may need to reuse something.”

Gretchen Fehrenbacher covers real estate for The Columbian. She can be reached at 360-759-8018 or via e-mail at gretchen.fehrenbacher@columbian.com.

HISTORIC CHARLES BROWN HOUSE

WHAT: 1866 home, being restored and converted to law office space.

ADDRESS: 400 West 11th St., Vancouver.

NAMED FOR: Charles Brown, the deed holder in 1874. Charles Brown was the son of Samuel W. Brown, who arrived in Vancouver as a land agent named by President Abraham Lincoln.

NEW OWNER: The Portland-based law firm of Stahancyk, Kent & Hook P.C.

ARCHITECTURAL INFORMATION: www.washington-divorce.com, the law firm’s Web site.

IF YOU HAVE INFORMATION: Call Stahancyk attorney Deanna Rusch at (360) 750-9115.

Click here for a link to the article at The Columbian.

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