Company to ‘noodle ideas’ to buy Bellingham armory. Got suggestions?

The Armory building on South State Street in Bellingham is constructed of local Chuckanut sandstone and was built in 1910 by the Washington National Guard as a military training station.
The Armory building on South State Street in Bellingham is constructed of local Chuckanut sandstone and was built in 1910 by the Washington National Guard as a military training station. The Bellingham Herald file

Dawson Construction has signed an option to buy Bellingham’s 106-year-old armory building, but the company has 10 months to conduct a feasibility study before possibly closing the deal.

The nearly 60,000-square-foot structure at 525 N. State St. was built in 1910 and housed National Guard and Army Reserve units until 1953. For the next 36 years, the armory’s large arena under its vaulted ceiling was home to a popular roller rink.

Western Washington University took over the building from the state in 1972 for $1. In recent years, it has been used to store university furniture and set materials for the campus theater department.

The university decided several years ago it no longer wanted the building, and in January transferred ownership to Western Washington University Foundation to facilitate the sale and development of the property.

The foundation has decided that a share of proceeds from any sale would support Western’s Compass 2 Campus program. The program at Woodring College of Education pairs Western student mentors with fifth- through 12th-grade students from traditionally underrepresented and diverse backgrounds in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

It’s definitely a historic property in the city.

Mike Bayless, Dawson Construction

Foundation officials are thrilled by the prospect of a local company interested in developing the site while respecting the armory’s historic look.

“It’s really so exciting,” said Deborah DeWees, assistant vice president for communications for University Advancement. “It’s such a good thing for the community.”

Foundation and Dawson officials declined to disclose the option price and purchase price. The agreement includes a parcel of land and a maintenance garage just south of the armory.

The distinctive armory features three stories atop a concrete foundation, with turret corners, a notched parapet, and exterior walls of clay tile and brick covered with blocks of Chuckanut sandstone held in place by mortar. As part of the agreement with Dawson, the armory would retain some of its architectural characteristics in any redevelopment.

“It’s definitely a historic property in the city,” said Mike Bayless, chief financial officer at Dawson.

He said the 10-month study period would give company executives “time to noodle on ideas.”

Military base

On Nov. 10, 1910, several thousand people gathered on Sehome Hill for the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone for the $75,000 armory. Upon completion, soldiers drilled on the hard maple floor below the vaulted ceiling that is supported by a grid of trusses and large tension rods made of steel. 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. During 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 over Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties.

It’s an old building. There have been many, many issues throughout the years.

Deborah DeWees, WWU Foundation

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. The roller rink continued under other owners until July 1989, when it closed because the floor needed expensive repairs.

Aging structure

Over the years, the armory became a home to mold, rot and leaks. Five years ago, the university spent about $800,000 to weatherproof the exterior and remove the worst of the interior damage.

“It’s an old building,” DeWees said. “There have been many, many issues throughout the years.”

Once the university decided to sell the armory, a team of campus, foundation and community members put together an overview of the property that was sent to more than 300 developers across the country to spur interest, DeWees said. That process didn’t hook an immediate response, but it did catch the eye of people at Dawson.

“As a lifelong resident of Bellingham, Pete Dawson, president of Dawson Construction, has a keen interest in the community and in the future of the armory,” said Stephanie Bowers, the foundation’s president and CEO.

Dawson representatives toured the building a couple of times and entered into talks about an option to buy after the foundation was given ownership of the armory in January, Bayless said.

A 2013 study by Wilson Engineering estimated the armory could be brought up to code for $541,000 to just over $1 million, depending on whether a large public assembly space was part of the plan.

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291