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The high-rise ‘Ham

August 14, 2011
The GTS at the Leopold

"Friends" and "Life" can be yours at the Leopold. Not shown: "Bay Views" (Orin O'Neill photo)

In the early 20th century, Bellingham was a bustling city: there were mills, factories and the world’s largest fish cannery on the waterfront, while banking and commerce flourished in a downtown that was criscrossed by streetcar lines, and railroad tracks.

Of course, much has changed since then. The tracks got torn up a long time ago, and the big department stores bailed for the mall in the late ’80s. The buildings, happily, remain.

The Bellingham Towers

This is Bellingham’s tallest building, the Bellingham Towers. Yes, that’s plural. And no doubt you’re asking, where’s the other one? There isn’t another one. I’m going to guess that was the original plan, but something prevented construction of an additional tower. Or maybe it was a typographical error on the building permit. Who knows? Please leave a comment if you do.

The top floor is, or maybe I should say was, occupied by Nimbus, a fine-dining establishment that went “on hiatus” a while ago. The views would certainly be spectacular, but there may not be enough of a market for restaurants with menus that show prices as “twenty-two” in the ‘Ham at the moment.

Bellingham Towers detail

The building has some nice detailing. So do the other older buildings in the downtown cluster, most of which are faced in brick. As in Portland, there doesn’t seem to be enough money floating around to make knocking down buildings and replacing them a default option, as is the case in Seattle.

The Mount Baker Theatre

One of Bellingham’s most distinctive landmarks is across the street from the Towers. The Mt. Baker Theatre hosts all manner of music and performing arts events. Built to present vaudeville shows and silent movies in 1927, restored in 1996, the Mt. Baker Theatre has a giant Wurlitzer organ. And a ghost named Judy. Or so the legend goes.

The Mount Baker Apartments

A short stroll away from the theatre brings you to the Mt. Baker Apartments, above. A rather imposing structure, it was ahead of its time, with the street-level storefronts that are now ubiquitous in modern urban residential design. Among the ground-floor establishments is the Temple Bar (someone went to Dublin, Ireland) and the, ahem, Mount Bakery, which serves up tasty baked treats.

New York City’s 1902 Flatiron Building inspired a lot of namesake imitators, including the one in downtown Bellingham, below. The name comes from each building’s triangular footprint, which resembled a flatiron, a household tool that was once quite common. Ask your grandparents. Or your great-grandparents, if they’re still around. Of course, the one in Bellingham is much smaller.

The Flatiron Building

The building across the street (the one with the blue guy) houses the Pickford Film Center‘s new auditorium. The Pickford’s two facilities are the only ones in town not owned by Regal Cinemas, so they’re the only source of art-house and alternative films.

Way back in the day it was not unusual for cities in the West to give Big Apple names to streets and landmarks. Every city of any significant size in Western Washington had hoped to become the terminus of the northern-tier transcontinental railroad (that ended up being Seattle), a prize that would turn a lucky small town into a major metropolis, like New York. That was seen as a good thing.

The Herald Building

Bellingham still has a daily newspaper, more or less. When I was in high school, the Bellingham Herald had a stellar journalistic reputation; a few of my journalist classmates went to work there.

The bright-white building, which like its contemporaries has lots of nice detailing (which is beyond the capability of the camera I happened to use to photograph… GRRR) still houses the newspaper’s (decimated) staff, but the printing presses are somewhere else. I was under the impression they always were, though it turns out the paper was printed on a press located in the building’s basement until 2009. The press was recently sold.

Like most newspapers these days, the Herald is a mere shell of its former self. Never more than 24 pages Monday-Saturday, it’s about 1/3 high-school sports and faithfully covers Tea Party activities, but not a whole lot else. If I weren’t so broke I’d be willing to pony up 75 cents ($1.50 on Sunday) even though I don’t feel I’m getting my money’s worth. So I scrounge a copy at the coffee shop. A columnist in Cascadia Weekly recently lambasted the Herald, calling it “the worst small-city newspaper in America.” I’d link you to that column, but CW has only recently discovered how to put stories online, and doesn’t make all of the ones in each issue available. PFFFT!

The Leopold

The Leopold, above, used to be a fancy hotel. It was a short walk from the train station, which is where the Depot Market is today. If you’re looking at this on a big enough screen, you’ll notice the “Retirement Living” sign.

The Leopold, up close

As you can see, it’s an imposing structure. The views from the top floor are probably pretty good. The Leopold is close to everything downtown.

But in 2011, what’s in downtown Bellingham? There’s a bar scene, of course, and live music. The Mt. Baker Theatre is not far, but tickets to its events are often pricey. Logos Bible Software occupies nearly all of the Flatiron Building, but there aren’t any other employers of that size. There’s a Rite-Aid nearby, but there’s no equally convenient grocery store.

One of my neighbors was talking about moving closer to downtown, but he made me realize the places I go most often are already within walking distance: grocery store, drugstore, Starbucks (for the WiFi), and soon, hardware store.

As in Seattle and Portland, if I need to go downtown, I have the GTS. Favicon

One Comment
  1. Jack Riepe permalink
    August 15, 2011 2:36 pm

    Dear Orin:

    There is nothing like a good local perspective to give one an idea of the places fellow riders call home. I am pleased to tell you that many of the brick-front (imposing) structures in Bellingham look like a perfect DNA match for many of the brick apartment houses that were built in Jersey City during the early 1920’s and 1930’s. The Jersey City Medical Center, built by politician/thug Frank Hague — all brick — spanned three city blocks and had more beds than most small US cities by itself.

    What is amazing about these structures is that they were built when most people took buses and streetcars to get across town… Consequently, there is no consideration for parking — anyplace. Try building a structure like that today, with a modern building code.

    Still, it is great that places like Bellingham have preserved these structures for the future. While most of these apartment houses were built with a 50 amp electrical service (per unit), they were built to last 150 years… Unlike most interstate bridges.

    This was a very enjoyable blog.

    Fondest regards,
    Twisted Roads

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