In the beginning, the man who now owns the most property in downtown Bellingham stumbled into the business of restoring old buildings. Early on, Robert K. “Bob” Hall figured he might buy and fix up two or three buildings, and presumed somebody else with more experience and more money would then jump into the profitable game.
But nobody did, so Hall kept buying and restoring historic buildings downtown, starting in the late 1980s and continuing to this day. He now owns or co-owns 21 buildings in the heart Bellingham, plus two in Spokane and one each in Chehalis and Olympia.
Noteworthy local buildings he owns in full or in part include the Herald Building and the Leopold, the Daylight and the Bellingham National Bank buildings, and the Barlow Building, home to Goat Mountain Pizza.
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Hall shares insights and lessons he learned along the way in his new book, “This Old Building; A Guide to Buying, Restoring & Managing Historical Commercial Property.”
Through the decades, Hall ran into good luck and tough experiences. He hopes the building-by-building tales in the book, and his practical advice for would-be developers, will encourage others to restore the architectural legacy of their communities while also turning a profit.
It’s a cautionary tale. It takes time and perseverance.
Robert K. “Bob” Hall
Just don’t expect it to be easy, Hall said. Keeping old buildings financially viable while upgrading and restoring them requires practical, incremental steps, often over many years.
“It’s a cautionary tale,” Hall said. “It takes time and perseverance.”
The long title of Hall’s book might make it sound like a technical slog for real estate and historic preservation nerds. Far from it. Full of historic photographs, and newer ones showing remodeling in action and the finished buildings, the book is a fascinating, personal tale of the pleasures and pitfalls of turning often rundown buildings into viable ventures.
The book has special appeal for Whatcom County readers because most of the buildings profiled in the book are in or near downtown Bellingham.
Hall, 68, grew up in Tacoma. The son of a commercial sign painter, he developed an interest in art, and learned the construction trades while helping his father build several houses.
Hall studied architectural engineering for four years at Washington State University, but didn't earn a degree. Instead, he traveled the world and became a young entrepreneur. He sold his artwork, then branched into crafts, what he called “hippie costume jewelry,” and then imported sweaters.
In time, he needed extra storage space for his sweater business, so he bought a three-story building on Unity Street in the late 1980s. Property was cheap because Bellis Fair mall had opened, draining downtown of many retailers, large and small.
But Hall bought the building without close scrutiny and soon learned major upgrades were needed or the building would be condemned. Hall was forced to refinance and then sell his family home, and had to camp out in the building with his two young sons.
He understandably wasn’t convinced that restoring buildings was a good gig, until he saw his tax returns. He had made more money on the building than through his sweater business.
So he started looking for other buildings to buy, restore and refinance. Fortunately for Hall, downtown Bellingham was ripe with old buildings, thanks to the city’s up-and-down history.
During early boom times, Bellingham was a comparatively large city in early Washington, with a bumper crop of new buildings. While economic busts stalled new construction, those downturns also meant the existing buildings remained standing, rather than be bulldozed in the name of fresh progress.
With experience, Hall developed a checklist of what to look for: solid masonry buildings that, while poorly managed, nonetheless had kept tenants through the years. With ongoing tenants, an old building could be restored according to its original code requirement, instead of a newer, more expensive standard.
Hall specially likes buildings built before, or soon after, the rise of electricity, because they were designed to make maximum use of natural light, with high ceilings, numerous windows, mezzanines and skylights.
“I had this fascination with old buildings,” Hall said.
At least seven of his Bellingham buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, which brings financial benefits but also increases the odds the buildings will keep their historic look.
At first, banks weren’t keen to loan money to a novice developer, especially one interested in seemingly decrepit buildings in a depressed downtown. But Hall remained optimistic that downtown would eventually rebound from its mall slump, a bet that paid that off both financially and historically.
“You have to think about what the future is going to be, and get in front of it,” he said.
More on Hall’s projects
Lanny Little published “Oldies But Goodies” Feb. 14, 2017 on YouTube. The 42-minute video showcases “The Rescue, Revitilization and Stewardship of Historic Buildings in Bellingham, Washington, and Beyond.”
Title: “This Old Building; A Guide to Buying, Restoring & Managing Historical Commercial Property,” by Robert K. Hall, 155 pages, large format
Price: $24.95, at Village Books, Allied Arts, and amazon.com.