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Art deco Bellingham City Hall celebrates its 75th year

City Hall was officially dedicated 75 years ago this month. The open house lasted three days, with more than 2,000 people touring the new building at 210 Lottie St.

There was a touch of controversy, however, over what women should wear to the dedication on Jan. 5, 1940. Some invitees lobbied for evening gowns, while so-called “standpatters” planned to dress as they would for a bridge party.

Fortunately, there’s no dress code for public celebration Monday, Jan. 26, marking the anniversary. The Mayor’s Office is hosting the event at 4 p.m. in City Council chambers, on the second floor.

Students from Birchwood Elementary School will sing patriotic songs, and Mayor Kelli Linville will speak. So will Lynette Felber, the historic preservation consultant in Bellingham who compiled information that put City Hall on the National Register of Historic Places.

“People who have a taste or an appreciation for modernism love that City Hall,” Felber said. “It’s so important to be aware of the gems that we have in the city.”

Also, history photos will be on display in the lobby, and Bellingham Fire Department will bring its restored 1930 fire engine. Pamphlets for a self-guided tour will be available.

Old City Hall ‘fussy’

Ground was broken for the current City Hall in October 1938. Before the new building, municipal business was conducted in what is now called Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall, at 121 Prospect St. The 1892 building is much-loved now, but proposals to remodel it instead of erecting a replacement City Hall never got off the ground.

“That old style with towers was considered fussy,” Felber said. “It was considered a relic of the old pioneer days.”

Instead, with the help of Depression-era, job-creating federal money, a new city hall was built a short distance away on ground kept wet from Whatcom Creek overflow. The building site was trashy, too.

“In those days, people dumped their trash everywhere,” Felber said. “I could never determine if it was a formal, officially designated dump.”

That wet underfooting required major foundation and drainage work in the 1970s to stop City Hall from settling further.

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. The exterior is sandstone and marbled granite, with bronze panels with images of fleur-de-lis.

Outside, above the main 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.

“If it didn’t have the art deco touches on the facade, it would be extremely severe,” Felber said.

In other words, for people who like modernism, it’s exciting in a subdued sort of way.

Anniversary event

What: 75th anniversary celebration of Bellingham City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

When: 4 p.m. Monday, Jan. 26.

Where: City Council chambers, second floor.

More: Mayor Kelli Linville and historic preservation consultant Lynette Felber will speak, and students from Birchwood Elementary School will sing. People can tour the halls, look at history photos in the lobby, and see the Bellingham Fire Department’s restored 1930 fire engine.

Downtown officially historic

On Dec. 29, 2014, the National Park Service added Bellingham’s downtown historic district to the National Register of Historic Places. The district is bounded roughly by East Maple, North Forest, York, Prospect, Bay and West Chestnut streets, and by Central and Cornwall avenues.

The national listing is an honorary designation that imposes no additional regulations or requirements on properties in the district.

Benefits of being listed include the promotion of so-called “heritage tourism,” potential freeway signs directing travelers to downtown, and eligibility for state and federal grants and for federal tax credits.

For more details, contact Katie Franks, development specialist for the city, 360-778-8388 or kfranks@cob.org.

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