Bellingham City Hall glides into 75th anniversary

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 10, 2014 

When the current City Hall was built, an editorial cartoon portrayed the new building as a dapper, mustachioed fellow striding into the future. In the background slouched the old City Hall, a bearded codger leaning on a cane. What a difference 75 years can make.

Today, the former City Hall at 121 Prospect St. is a much-loved part of Whatcom Museum, while City Hall at 210 Lottie St. lags in public adoration.

"People have kind of neglected the new City Hall," said Lynette Felber, a historic preservation consultant in Bellingham. "It does have a subdued, cool feel to it, but that's characteristic of modernism."

Regardless of whether City Hall is a good fit for the "City of Subdued Excitement," or just a large place to pay bills and obtain permits, the building marks its Diamond Jubilee this year.

Plans to mark the building's 75th anniversary are in the works, said Vanessa Blackburn, a staffer in the mayor's office who leads tours of City Hall.

Felber compiled information that put City Hall on the National Register of Historic Places. She likes old buildings more when she learns about them, so maybe people can grow to appreciate City Hall more.

People looking for a job can relate to this: City Hall was built through federal programs designed to create jobs during the Great Depression. City Hall is the only government building in Bellingham funded that way.

The design of City Hall is a subset of Art Deco called PWA (Public Works Administration) Moderne. It's clean and symmetrical, with smooth surfaces and bits of decoration, but nothing garish.

People, like me, who are mostly all-thumbs when it comes to repairs, can relate to this: PWA Moderne was a popular choice because its basic style was well-suited to the skills of local workers.

City Hall is best viewed from a distance, for its scale, lines and symmetry, or up close to pay attention to its materials and selective decoration.

The exterior is sandstone, with marbled granite along the bottom. People enter the two-story lobby through bronze doors flanked by copper-framed lanterns. The lobby, naturally lit thanks to glass bricks in the façade, has walls covered with Montana travertine, a form of limestone; wood paneling of white oak and gumwood; and a terrazzo floor with a geometric design.

The rear of City Hall housed the police department and city jail, with six cells. That space was converted to offices after police moved into their own building in 1993.

Like any 75-year-old building, City Hall has seen its share of repairs and changes, including drainage and foundation work, waterproofing for the sandstone, remodeled council chambers and seismic upgrades.

"Overall we're in good structural condition," said Ted Carlson, public works director.

Outside, high above the entry, stand three Egyptian-like sculpted figures. On the left, a woman holds a baby. On the right, a man holds a long saw. The middle figure has three faces; one looking forward and one looking to each of the side figures.

One interpretation is that the middle figure represents local government, seeking alliance with "family" and "industry" while looking to the future.

Blackburn said she imagines the middle figure with a fourth face, a hidden one looking into the building. That image suggests local government joining family and industry to work toward the future.

"It's the role of the work that's done in city government," she said.

CITY HALL QUIZ

Test your knowledge of the 75-year-old home to Bellingham's government:

1) Where did the sandstone for the exterior come from?

A. Quarry on Chuckanut Drive.

B. Quarry on Sehome Hill.

C. Quarry near Tacoma.

2) What images decorate bronze panels on the exterior?

A. Fleur-de-lis.

B. Leaping salmon.

C. Washington governors.

3). City Hall's design is PWA Moderne, a subset of Art Deco. Name another Art Deco building in Whatcom County.

A. Amtrak depot in Fairhaven.

B. Blaine City Hall.

C. Bellingham High School.

4). What feature helped corrections officers prevent problems in the jail at City Hall?

A. An intercom let guards eavesdrop on prisoners.

B. The warden controlled water to the showers, to prevent flooding by inmates.

C. Cutting-edge cameras provided ongoing surveillance.

5) The lobby features large relief images of what animals?

A. Salmon and eagle.

B. Salmon and deer.

C. Deer and mountain lion.

Answers: 1. C 2. A 3. C 4. B 5. C

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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