Dean Kahn

Bellingham’s Orchard Terrace a historic ‘jewel’

Lavon Staveland Ells, left, lives at Orchard Terrace Apartments in Bellingham and Mike Stoner owns two units there. Their application recently put the 64-year-old housing complex on the Washington Heritage Register, and it could be added soon to the National Register of Historic Places.
Lavon Staveland Ells, left, lives at Orchard Terrace Apartments in Bellingham and Mike Stoner owns two units there. Their application recently put the 64-year-old housing complex on the Washington Heritage Register, and it could be added soon to the National Register of Historic Places. The Bellingham Herald

A cluster of apartments on land with deep roots in Bellingham’s past has been recognized as historic in its own right. Orchard Terrace Apartments, at 901 N. Forest St., has been added to the Washington Heritage Register and could soon be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The six two- and three-story buildings sit on one and a half acres with ties to Bellingham’s pioneer coal and railroad industries. And the 64-year-old complex, itself, is considered a well-kept example of “garden apartment” design, with the buildings overlooking terraced gardens, lawns and courtyards, creating an interior, park-like haven soothing to the eye and to the spirit.

Mike Stoner, who owns and rents out two of the units, calls the historic designation for Orchard Terrace “appropriate recognition for what is really a jewel in Bellingham.”

The landscaped common space is kept even more peaceful because vehicles are limited to a garage and perimeter parking. In many ways, Orchard Terrace is an early model for contemporary efforts to create high-density living that fits a neighborhood and doesn’t overwhelm the residents.

Lavon Staveland Ells, a retired Boeing writer who moved to Bellingham and Orchard Terrace three years ago, said she enjoys the buildings’ “modesty.”

“They’re not imposing,” she said. “I like the community feeling of living here.”

Orchard Terrace opened as apartments in 1951 and was converted to condominiums in 1973. Ells initiated the effort to seek historic recognition for Orchard Terrace, with support from condominium board members. Stoner, who recently retired as the Port of Bellingham’s environmental director, volunteered to help Ells with research.

Michael Houser, the architectural historian at Washington’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, said some other garden apartment complexes in the state have been demolished and replaced by high-end housing. Orchard Terrace is the first complex of its kind in Washington headed to the national register, he said.

Coal discovered, trees planted

In 1853, coal was discovered not far from the Orchard Terrace site. Soon after, a lawyer acting on behalf of the Bellingham Bay Coal Co., a group of San Francisco businessmen, gained title to a land claim that included the Orchard Terrace property.

In 1870, a company employee and 20 Chinese coal workers cleared the land bounded by what is now State, Forest, Berry and Rose streets to make room for a superintendent’s house and office. John Bennett, a Scot who developed a famous nursery where the Columbia cement plant was later built, planted assorted fruit trees — apple, cherry, pear, plum and peach — on the company land.

After the coal company closed in 1878, the orchard house became home for the engineer brought in to oversee construction of the Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad line to Sumas. The engineer’s residence was later turned into a lodging house, and the property was sold in 1949 to developers interested in a federal program designed to boost the supply of housing after World War II.

Several of those pioneer orchard trees likely survive to this day. The original plans for Orchard Terrace Apartments noted 10 apple and pear trees. Today, three apple trees and three pear trees, two of them Bartlett pear and one winter pear, are still bearing fruit. Not long ago, Stoner enjoyed a winter pear cobbler prepared by Ells.

Developers encouraged

To spur the construction of affordable family apartments after the war, the federal government allowed projects to be built without any out-of-pocket investment by developers. The enticement promoted the construction of 400,000 apartments across the country, but some were shoddily built and some developers padded their pockets.

Stoner said his research found no such corruption with Orchard Terrace. The Seattle developers hired a respected Seattle architecture firm to smartly design the complex and used quality materials.

The plan originally envisioned 20 buildings, but was scaled back to six, enough for 32 one-bedroom units and 16 two-bedroom ones.

The brick-and-siding exteriors share common themes but have enough variety — some units have shingle siding, others have horizontal beveled siding — to avoid monotony. Several buildings sit slightly askew from the others, another planned touch to heighten the feel of informality.

The complex has been upgraded over the years, of course, with new roofs, paint jobs, better windows and new wiring, but the buildings maintain their basic original look. The apartments, ranging from 640 to 900 square feet, haven’t changed radically. Some still have their original steel kitchen cabinets; others have been refurbished, but not gutted and redone.

“They’re small by today’s standards, but they’re really efficient.” Stoner said. “They work the way they’re supposed to. They’re not ostentatious. They’re cozy.”

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com. Read his columns at bellinghamherald.com/dean-kahn.

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