HISTORY

Milestones: Fortress of memories: Bellingham Armory ripe for redevelopment

Standing since 1910 and rich in history, the armory seeks some fresh ideas

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 24, 2008 

Available for development: 60,000-square-foot fortress. Nearly 100 years old; needs work. Call Western Washington University.

Business people regularly contact Western officials to see if the old Bellingham Armory at 525 N. State St. is available for redevelopment.

Now there's a new idea circulating on campus: Renovate the musty, leaky building into a fresh, dry home for the dance, costume and scenery operations of the College of Fine and Performing Arts.

If that doesn't work out, Western might issue a "request for proposal" to developers, nonprofit groups and anyone else interested in turning the Armory into a showcase something or other.

"There are so many possibilities," said Tim Wynn, director of facilities management at Western. "I don't know which one is going to fly."

The gothic structure was built in 1910 and housed National Guard and Army Reserve units until 1953. At 60,000 square feet, it's large enough to fit more than 16 Fox Halls inside. For the next 36 years, the Armory's indoor arena was home to a popular roller rink.

Western took over the building from the state in 1972 for $1. Then, in 1989, Western gave the roller rink the boot because the arena floor needed expensive repairs.

In recent decades, Western students have used part of the Armory to build theater sets and props, and the university uses the building to store desks, chairs, tables, blackboards and other trappings of academia.

Architectural historians, neighborhood residents, and many people who trained as soldiers, or danced, or listened to music, or roller-skated, or attended conventions, dog shows or home shows at the Armory hope the building can be redeveloped more or less intact.

"It's an irreplaceable asset," said David Gould, a former president of Sehome Neighborhood Association who lives near the Armory. "We need some dreamers to step up to the plate."

MILITARY BASE

On Nov. 10, 1910, many Bellingham businesses closed their doors because of the day's festivities. At 2 p.m., several thousand people gathered on Sehome Hill for the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone for the $75,000 Armory. Two hours later, dignitaries gathered in south Bellingham for the driving of a gold spike for the first segment of the Bellingham-to-Skagit County interurban railway.

When finished, the Armory rose three stories tall, with a concrete foundation, rounded turret corners, notched parapet, and exterior walls of clay tiles and brick covered with well-mortared blocks of Chuckanut sandstone.

Inside, soldiers drilled on the hard maple floor below the vaulted ceiling that's supported by a grid of trusses made of fir and large tension rods made of steel.

"That's one tree; there's no splice," Lloyd Hungate, facilities maintenance supervisor for Western, marveled as he pointed to one of five beams spanning the width of the arena. "I've stepped it off; it's 75 feet."

Elsewhere in the building, soldiers honed their marksmanship in the basement firing range and conducted Guard and Army business in offices in the flat-roofed section facing the bay.

Through the decades, various units of the Army Reserves and the Washington National Guard were based at the Armory — including coast artillery, anti-aircraft artillery, infantry, a medical detachment, military police and engineers. During the two world wars, Washington State Guard members held down the fort to replace National Guard units called to active duty.

In World War II, the Armory housed one of a handful of centers in the Northwest that tracked aircraft aloft. More than 1,000 women volunteers used color markers on a large map to track the location and movement of aircraft seen over Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties.

COMMUNITY FUN

Even when the Armory was under military control, the building was used for civilian events, such as conventions, dances, basketball games and music shows. In November 1953, Ted Bruland opened his Rolladium roller rink at the Armory.

"When we started, they used to have drills," Marlene Bruland, Ted's daughter-in-law, told The Bellingham Herald in 1982.

"They'd roll the guns onto the floor and we'd have to wait until they were through."

When Ted Bruland retired in the early '70s, Del and Elberta Kuehnel ran the rink until 1978, followed by Ray and Gladys Mead, who kept the business rolling until it closed July 29, 1989.

Jerry Bruland, Ted's son and himself a champion roller-skater, said recreational and competitive skating remained popular all of those years, and people had to reserve skating parties a year in advance.

"It did not close because of lack of business," he said.

NEEDS WORK

Water warped parts of the arena floor even before the rink closed, and the building's flat roof has leaked for several years, staining and crumbling some ceilings and walls. Parts of the roof are so damaged that workers can't make any more repairs.

A 2003 report by Geiger Engineers estimated it would cost $260,000 to demolish the building. But Wynn said he and Western's trustees want the Armory redeveloped in a way that preserves the sandstone walls, the roof beams, and the high bank of windows on the building's south side.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Armory is not on any official list of historic buildings, but experts say it would readily qualify, and thus be eligible for property tax breaks and tax credits to encourage its rehabilitation.

Another 2003 report, by Artifacts Architectural Consulting of Tacoma, says the Armory is in good enough shape and in a good location for redevelopment for residential, office or mixed use.

Wynn said the property immediately south of the Armory, land with a storage building on it, potentially could be used for parking and housing as part of a public-private package deal to redo the Armory.

The Sehome Neighborhood Association's draft update for its part of the city encourages Western to remodel and use the building, but says other uses could be considered.

Under city zoning, the property could handle 40 apartments or condos, but a wider range of uses, including schools, churches and community facilities, are possible with special city approval.

The Artifacts report estimated a remodel could cost $9 million before tax breaks and tax credits, but Wynn cautioned that the figure is preliminary.

Michael Sullivan, of Artifacts, is hopeful the Armory will see better days.

"To me, it's unimaginable that they would knock the thing down," he said. "It's still some of the best views of the harbor from that site."

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service