Dean Kahn

What will soon glow red, green, blue and other colors in downtown Bellingham?

What if the HERALD sign atop the Herald Building glowed red and green for Christmas? That will soon be possible.

How about blue in honor of Western Washington University? Definitely a possibility.

For decades, the rooftop sign with 10-foot-tall neon letters has provided reliable guidance and familiar comfort to pilots, boaters and folks on the ground.

Now, thanks to modern technology, it won’t be long before the sign will be capable of kinetic color shows with a rainbow of hues.

Workers with Signs Plus, a Bellingham company, will soon replace the old sheet-metal letters with stout aluminum ones with the same dimensions.

“We’re constructing them to look like the original ones,” said Jim Sutterfield, company president.

More important, the energy-gulping neon lights will be replaced with an energy-efficient LED system with a color-mixer to present a wide range of colors for each letter, and to program changing color patterns among all of the letters.

“It’s like running an electronic message sign,” said Paul Lachapelle, director of operations at Signs Plus.

Workers began removing the old letters on Monday, Aug. 15, and should finish within a week. The new letters and lighting system will likely be installed in early September.

Tallest building in town

In February 1925, The Herald, then located in the triangular brick building at Commercial, Champion and Bay streets, announced plans for a majestic new building of its own. Construction of the new building at Chestnut and North State (formerly Elk) streets began that August and the newspaper moved into the partially finished building in April 1926. Construction finished up that summer.

Not counting land costs, the building cost $325,000. With its basement, six full floors and its seventh-floor penthouse, the building was the tallest in Bellingham until 1930, when a 14-story hotel, now called Bellingham Towers, went up.

Sitting atop the new building was the HERALD sign, prominent on its 40-foot frame and illuminated by more than 300 incandescent bulbs. The sign was changed to neon lighting in 1930.

In March 1990, to mark The Herald’s centennial year of publication, the sign was activated for nightly illumination, ending many years of off-and-on – but mostly off – use. The newspaper again switched off the sign in late 2000 during the energy crisis, but the sign was turned back on in late summer 2006.

Three years later, The McClatchy Co., the newspaper’s parent company, sold the building, including the sign, to developers Bob Hall and David Johnston.

Since then, the sign has been off and on intermittently as letters needed repair, said Kane Hall, CEO of Daylight Properties and the son of Bob Hall.

With Bob Hall and Johnston approaching the end of their renovation plan for the building, the question arose whether the sign should be replaced or merely repaired. Bob Hall said he went up on the roof to take a close look at the sign’s rusting letters, aging support structure and out-of-date lighting system.

“They looked good to me,” he said, “but they probably wouldn’t last another 100 years.”

Planning for the new sign began about a year ago; hands-on work began more than three months ago.

The new sign costs about $100,000, including a contribution from The Bellingham Herald.

“Although we no longer own the sign, we realize its significance in the community and are thrilled that it’s being saved and updated for the future,” said Mark Owings, the newspaper’s publisher.

Kane Hall said the new sign would again glow red at first, with special colors saved for special occasions.

On election eve 1928, all of the sign’s letters except the “R” were extinguished to alert the community that Republican Herbert Hoover had been elected president. If Democrat Alfred Smith had won, the letter “D” would have been left on.

Asked if the new sign might glow blue this November if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, or red if Republican Donald Trump prevails, Kane Hall remained noncommittal.

“Maybe we should stay nonpartisan,” he said.

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291