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The History of Old City Hall

Reaching into the sky with its four spires and clock tower, Old City Hall is one of Bellingham’s most iconic landmarks. Most have seen the building and many have been inside during a visit to the Whatcom Museum. But fewer people know the history behind it — and the many secrets it holds.

History of Old City Hall

Interior of Comptroller’s Office, c. 1913 Photographer Unknown: Whatcom Museum #1988.16.19

The story of Old City Hall starts more than 100 years ago. Prior to 1891, the New Whatcom City Council had been housed in the Oakland Block at the corner of Champion and Holly streets. The City Council shared space with a clothing store, a music dealer and a hotel.

However, as the government grew, it became evident that the City Council needed something bigger. They asked local architects to submit plans for a new city hall. In November, the council accepted a design from local architect Alfred Lee.

Lee, a self-taught architect, pulled the designs for the late-Victorian building from various catalogues and combined different plans together.

The beginning

The council purchased a plot of land on a bluff overlooking Bellingham Bluff for $5,000. Construction started in February 1892. Construction wrapped up quickly when an economic depression in 1893 caused funds for the project to disappear, leaving the second and third floor interiors unfinished.

One side effect caused by this abrupt stop was that the clock faces that had been installed didn’t actually work. Instead, the city moved the hands on the clock to permanently read seven o’clock. These didn’t last long, however, as strong winds eventually knocked out the clock faces. The city, not having the funds to replace them, simply left them as gaping holes.

The city did install a large, three-feet-in-diameter bell in the tower, which was rung to alert the volunteer fire department whenever there was a fire in the city. The height of the building made it easy to see any fires in the area.

City Hall is finished

As money slowly trickled in, construction continued on the building. The second and third floors’ interiors were finished in 1910. In total, the entire project costed $50,000 (about 1.3 million dollars today). City Council and other city employees slowly began to occupy the various rooms in the building. Today, visitors to Old City Hall can see where these officials worked by looking at the small black text panels that are next to select doors.

Charred tower, 1962: Photo by Galen Biery, Whatcom Museum #1996.10.2245

When New Whatcom and Fairhaven combined to form one town on Bellingham Bay in 1904, the New Whatcom City Hall on Prospect Street became the city hall for Bellingham. It continued to serve as city hall until the local departments physically outgrew the space. A newer, larger, and more modern city hall was built on Lottie Street in 1939, which still serves as Bellingham’s city hall.

Old City Hall sat empty for most of the 1939. There were calls from city councilmen to demolish the building. But the building was saved in November of that year when a group of volunteers led by John M. Edson established the Bellingham Public Museum Society and committed to occupy the building under a five-year lease. The museum officially opened on January 23, 1941.

The Museum

In 1962 a fire caused by faulty wiring ran through the top section of the building and left the main tower and much of the roof a charred frame of what it once was. Many thought that the building would be closed for good as it was no longer suitable for exhibition. A 12-year fundraising drive commenced.

Blueprints for the clock tower portion of the building no longer existed, so builders had to use photographs and sketches to recreate that section of the building. In 1974 the museum was finally reopened to the public. A bedsheet with the words “We Did It” was raised on the flag pole at the top of the tower.

Rebuilding tower, 1974: Photo by Galen Biery, Whatcom Museum #1985.70.8 b

Remnants of the history of Old City Hall can still be seen today. In the basement of the building, which used to serve as the city’s police station, the remains of jail bars over some doors and a padded jail cell can still be seen.

In the first floor photo gallery that is directly in front of the stairs, which used to be the city’s comptroller’s office, the outlines of what was once the comptroller’s vault can be faintly seen in the wall, covered by paint and a photograph. Behind the attendant’s desk, the remnants of the treasurer’s vault can be seen.

If you look up at the clock tower, there is a chance that the hands still read seven o’clock. The clock mechanism was never installed, so occasionally museum staff will climb up to the clock tower and move the hands.

Come discover the history of Old City Hall for yourself! Take a docent-led tour on Sunday afternoons at 12:30pm for more tales from the past.

–Written by Colton Redtfeldt, Marketing Assistant

Decorated Christmas trees

5th Annual Deck the Old City Hall a Great Way to Get into the Holiday Spirit

 

Some of the many trees on display at the Old City Hall during Deck the Old City Hall

If you’re looking to get into the holiday spirit, look no further than Whatcom Museum’s Deck the Old City Hall. From Nov. 24 to Dec. 31, Old City Hall will be decked out for the holidays for its fifth annual celebration.

More than 20 decorated trees will be on display, along with garlands, wreaths, and more. There will be a variety of events to participate in as well, such as a holiday cocktail party and visits with Santa.

Deck the Old City Hall

Admission to Deck the Old City Hall is by donation (regular admission applies to the Museum’s Lightcatcher building). The Museum offers admission by donation as a seasonal gift to the community, so there’s no need to worry if your wallet is a little slim from holiday shopping! Proceeds from donations benefit Museum programs and exhibitions.

Families interested in visiting with Santa can see him at Old City Hall on Saturday, Nov. 25, Sunday, Nov. 26 or Sunday, Dec. 3, 12:30-2:30pm in the Rotunda Room. Visitors can take photos with Santa and bring their wish lists to find out if they’ve been naughty or nice. This event is included with donation.

To kick off December, the Museum will host the Deck the Old City Hall Holiday Cocktail Party on Friday, Dec. 1, 5:30-8pm. Guests can dress up for the evening and enjoy wine and appetizers and dance to the beats from the DJ’s playlist. The event is 21 and over, and tickets are $50 per person, available online at: brownpapertickets.com/event/3139702.

“Many people come back (after the party) and bring their families the following week,” said Lori Clough, Museum Advocates co-chair and a co-sponsor of the cocktail party. “That makes me feel like we are doing our part by showing off this iconic historical masterpiece that keeps our history and artifacts safe.”

She adds this is her fourth year as a sponsor, and she feels she and her husband are “making a difference one party at a time.”

People gather during Deck the Old City Hall’s 2016 Cocktail party.

A few other family friendly activities include a children’s holiday tree for decorating and visits with Wally the Museum Mouse, the beloved mascot. Take photos with this big, friendly mouse in the Rotunda Room on Saturday, Dec. 2 or 9, 12:30-2:30pm.

Deck the Old City Hall is open Wednesday-Sunday, Nov. 24 – Dec. 31, noon – 5pm at Old City Hall, 121 Prospect St. Admission is by donation.

–Written by Colton Redtfeldt, Marketing Assistant

Focus on 50 Celebrates History of Whatcom Community College

The Whatcom Museum is pleased to present Focus on 50, an exhibition dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Whatcom Community College. A stroll through the exhibition on the first floor of Old City Hall tells the story of how the country’s first “college without walls” grew to become a college without limits, now ranked among the top 150 community and technical colleges in the United States.

The exhibit features a photo archive of the college’s experimental roots: classes held in an abandoned supermarket on Marine Drive; a tin shed in Boulevard Park turned “crafts studio” (the current site of Woods Coffee); the “Whatcom on Wheels” bookmobile that toured the county. Included are artifacts from the college’s past: the first computers introduced to the college almost 40 years ago; early examples of Whatcom’s course catalogues and advertising; the original hand-carved wooden signs that identified Whatcom’s rented spaces from Blaine to Bellingham. With its mission to provide access to a college education to everyone in Whatcom County, and its promise to always put the student first, Whatcom Community College evolved from its decentralized “satellite centers” to a beautiful 72-acre campus in Bellingham’s Cordata neighborhood. Come see and hear the stories of the creative educational pioneers whose vision guided the college from a radical concept to a nationally recognized center for innovation in liberal arts, technology, and professional fields. Read more

Events

Old City Hall History Tour

Take a fun, informative docent-led tour of Old City Hall on Sundays at 12:30pm. Our trained guides take participants down to the basement of Old City Hall to see the historic jail rooms, including a padded cell from the days of prohibition! They share insights into the early use of the basement as the city jail, as well as tell unique stories. Tours include an overview about the architecture of the venerable building, as well as the history of the early days of Bellingham. Don’t miss your chance to get “booked in the basement!” Tours last one hour, begin on the first floor lobby of Old City Hall, and are included with admission and free to members.

Old City Hall History Tour

Take a fun, informative docent-led tour of Old City Hall on Sundays at 12:30pm. Our trained guides take participants down to the basement of Old City Hall to see the historic jail rooms, including a padded cell from the days of prohibition! They share insights into the early use of the basement as the city jail, as well as tell unique stories. Tours include an overview about the architecture of the venerable building, as well as the history of the early days of Bellingham. Don’t miss your chance to get “booked in the basement!” Tours last one hour, begin on the first floor lobby of Old City Hall, and are included with admission and free to members.

Old City Hall History Tour

Take a fun, informative docent-led tour of Old City Hall on Sundays at 12:30pm. Our trained guides take participants down to the basement of Old City Hall to see the historic jail rooms, including a padded cell from the days of prohibition! They share insights into the early use of the basement as the city jail, as well as tell unique stories. Tours include an overview about the architecture of the venerable building, as well as the history of the early days of Bellingham. Don’t miss your chance to get “booked in the basement!” Tours last one hour, begin on the first floor lobby of Old City Hall, and are included with admission and free to members.

Old City Hall History Tour

Take a fun, informative docent-led tour of Old City Hall on Sundays at 12:30pm. Our trained guides take participants down to the basement of Old City Hall to see the historic jail rooms, including a padded cell from the days of prohibition! They share insights into the early use of the basement as the city jail, as well as tell unique stories. Tours include an overview about the architecture of the venerable building, as well as the history of the early days of Bellingham. Don’t miss your chance to get “booked in the basement!” Tours last one hour, begin on the first floor lobby of Old City Hall, and are included with admission and free to members.

Old City Hall History Tour

Take a fun, informative docent-led tour of Old City Hall on Sundays at 12:30pm. Our trained guides take participants down to the basement of Old City Hall to see the historic jail rooms, including a padded cell from the days of prohibition! They share insights into the early use of the basement as the city jail, as well as tell unique stories. Tours include an overview about the architecture of the venerable building, as well as the history of the early days of Bellingham. Don’t miss your chance to get “booked in the basement!” Tours last one hour, begin on the first floor lobby of Old City Hall, and are included with admission and free to members.

Old City Hall History Tour

Take a fun, informative docent-led tour of Old City Hall on Sundays at 12:30pm. Our trained guides take participants down to the basement of Old City Hall to see the historic jail rooms, including a padded cell from the days of prohibition! They share insights into the early use of the basement as the city jail, as well as tell unique stories. Tours include an overview about the architecture of the venerable building, as well as the history of the early days of Bellingham. Don’t miss your chance to get “booked in the basement!” Tours last one hour, begin on the first floor lobby of Old City Hall, and are included with admission and free to members.

Old City Hall History Tour

Take a fun, informative docent-led tour of Old City Hall on Sundays at 12:30pm. Our trained guides take participants down to the basement of Old City Hall to see the historic jail rooms, including a padded cell from the days of prohibition! They share insights into the early use of the basement as the city jail, as well as tell unique stories. Tours include an overview about the architecture of the venerable building, as well as the history of the early days of Bellingham. Don’t miss your chance to get “booked in the basement!” Tours last one hour, begin on the first floor lobby of Old City Hall, and are included with admission and free to members.


THE WHATCOM MUSEUM CELEBRATES “DECK THE OLD CITY HALL”

DOCHFOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Bellingham, WA, November 1, 2016—This year marks the fourth year of the Whatcom Museum’s Deck the Old City Hall festivities. Running Wednesdays through Sundays, November 25 through December 31, 2016, the building will be decorated in garlands, wreaths, and sparkling lights, and will feature more than 20 themed, decorated trees. In addition to the festive decorations, the month-long program will feature visits with Santa, a pop-up shop, and a signature cocktail party to kick-off the holidays. Visitors can:

VISIT with Santa: Sat. & Sun., Nov. 26 & 27 and Sun., Dec. 4, 12:30 – 2:30 PM

 CELEBRATE at our signature cocktail party, sponsored by Scott and Lori Clough: Fri., Dec. 2, 5:30 – 8 PM. Guests will enjoy tasty appetizers and drinks, music, dancing, and beautifully decorated trees. Tickets are $50 and are available on BrownPaperTickets.com beginning Nov. 1.

 SHOP the pop-up Museum Store, featuring seasonal and handmade gift items and decor.

 ENTER to win raffle prizes, including a completely decorated tree, ready to take home!

 Admission is by donation throughout this program. Proceeds help make Museum programs and exhibitions affordable for all. Deck the Old City Hall is sponsored by Northwest Honda, the Museum Advocates, and the Museum Foundation Board of Directors.